Cardiff Blues rallied from a half-time deficit of 10-13 to open their Heineken Cup account with a handsome 34-18 victory over Bristol at the Arms Park in Cardiff on Saturday, clinching a handy bonus-point at the death.
The visitors from across the River Severn started well, with David Hill scoring a fine try whilst the game was still young.
But the locals refused to panic, and a mesmeric performance from Martyn Williams inspired a four-try fightback in the second half.
What a response! The Blues were trailing 13-3, struggling to find any chinks in the Bristol armour, and could have made any number of plaintive remarks about the way the rub of the green was going. That was two minutes before half-time.
Forty minutes of game play later, the Blues led 34-13, having scored four tries and spent much of that forty minutes manufacturing their own luck. All four tries were superb. They needed to be, for Bristol were no pushovers.
The stats tell the story of the first half. It took 37 minutes for a set piece to go against the head/throw, when Mark Regan threw a little too directly to one of his jumpers. The penalty count was six apiece, the number of line-outs and scrums was even, and both teams had ample possession and territory.
Both attacked in their own unique manner. Bristol thudded into every possible contact situation in attack and defence with the relish of a child making a bee-line for a bouncy castle.
The Blues opted for a more svelte mindset, letting Tom Shanklin, Jamie Robinson and Gareth Thomas jink around for gaps through which to send Ben Blair, while the forwards played some deft hot potato with the ball. Bristol set out to run over Cardiff, Cardiff set out to run around Bristol. It was playground bullies chasing the little nippers. In the end, the bullies got tired out.
The Blues stormed into the game, with the first spell of play taking them 40m upfield and through 14 phases of possession. On that 14th phase, Shanklin's long pass to Tom James was just called forward, much to the disgust of the home fans.
Bristol, with their first piece of set piece possession, went on the rampage themselves, wearing their way into Cardiff's 22, surviving a turnover which nearly saw Shanklin running the length of the field - another forward pass was called - and eventually opening the scoring with a Jason Strange penalty. Six minutes of Cardiff enterprise later, Blair equalised.
Tiny margins counted in the first half: margins such as the millimetres of forward momentum to those two potential Blues scoring passes seen by referee Peter Fitzgibbon in the first ten minutes while Cardiff were running free, or margins such as the nanosecond Tom Arscott beat Ben Blair to Arscott's own chip by after 21 minutes, releasing David Hill to the posts for the opening score to make it 10-3.
A further penalty by Strange made it 13-3, as 50-50 decisions trickled against Cardiff - that penalty was for a Cardiff hand in the ruck, which seemed a bizarre decision given the Blues were busy driving Bristol some 8m backwards at the time.
Mistakes were few and far between from two focussed teams, but that skew throw by Regan gave Cardiff an attacking scrum at a critical moment. Dai Flanagan, who started anonymously but ended the game in total control, chipped over the onrushing backs after Xavier Rush had bought him a little room, Jamie Robinson caught the ball before it had even bounced, and scooted under the posts. Momentum swung irreversibly to the Blues.
The second half began the same as the first, but Cardiff began to vary it a little more. Paul Tito and Xavier Rush were given more licence to run at the Bristol defence and the added weight to the running attack had Bristol struggling to cover all angles.
Strange missed a penalty, and then Blair tied the scores at 13-13, although Jamie Robinson was furious that he was not allowed to take the advantage at the breakdown.
Discipline began to fade in the Bristol ranks. Jason Hobson conceded ten metres for some lunatic back chat to the referee, who was excellent, and then on the hour mark Darren Crompton was sent to the sin-bin for his second high tackle of the match. By the time he came back, Cardiff were no longer chasing the win, they were instead chasing the bonus point.
Three times the Blues had gone close after Crompton's exit, and Strange's straggly clearance kick from that third wave of pressure gave Tom James the field position to launch a counter. Wide the ball went, through four pairs of hands, until Blair was stopped inches short by a marvellous tackle from Sam Cox. But at the ruck Maama Molitika stretched to place the ball on the line and give the Blues the lead. Blair dusted himself down and converted.
Two minutes later a loop move among Cardiff's backs went wrong, but as every good flanker ought to, Martyn williams picked up the loose ball and charged ahead, pausing briefly to dummy Josh Taumalolo before sauntering to the line.
An undercurrent of niggle had developed from Bristol's indiscipline, and Shaun Perry was fortunate not to follow Crompton after a shoulder charge on Gareth Thomas. But it was all Cardiff, and with two minutes to go, James broke, Rhys Thomas and Shanklin kept the ball alive, and Williams capped his superb performance with his second try. Once again, Blair converted for a 34-13 scoreline.
With the job done, the Blues sat back, and young wing Arscott - one for the future - rounded off a late Bristol flourish.
Man of the match: Tom Arscott played well for Bristol, but the candidates are from the Cardiff ranks. Tom Shanklin was the pick of the backs with several breaks, and Paul Tito was a big presence in loose and tight, but Martyn Williams was a cut above, from start to finish.
For Cardiff Blues:
Tries: Robinson, Molitika, Williams 2
Cons: Blair 4
Pens: Blair 2
Tries: Hill, Arscott
Pens: Strange 2
Yellow card(s): Crompton (Bristol) - high tackle, 59
Cardiff Blues: 15 Ben Blair, 14 Tom James, 13 Jamie Robinson, 12 Tom Shanklin, 11 Gareth Thomas, 10 Dai Flanagan, 9 Jason Spice, 8 Xavier Rush (c), 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Ma'ama Molitika, 5 Paul Tito, 4 Deiniol Jones, 3 Taufa'ao Filise, 2 Gareth Williams, 1 John Yapp.
Replacements: 16 Gethin Jenkins, 17 T Rhys Thomas, 18 Robert Sidoli, 19 Scott Morgan, 20 Richie Rees, 21 Tal Selley, 22 Rhys Williams.
Bristol: 15 David Hill, 14 Tom Arscott, 13 Sam Cox, 12 Rob Higgitt, 11 Lee Robinson, 10 Jason Strange, 9 Shaun Perry, 8 Andrew Blowers, 7 Joe El Abd, 6 Matt Salter, 5 Sean Hohneck, 4 Nathan Budgett, 3 Jason Hobson, 2 Mark Regan, 1 Darren Crompton.
Replacements: 16 David Blaney, 17 Alex Clarke, 18 Roy Winters, 19 Alfie To'oala, 20 Dan Ward-Smith, 21 Brian O'Riordan, 22 Josh Taumalolo.
Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)
Touch judges: Colin Stanley (Ireland), Richard Kerr (Ireland)