Stade FranÃ§ais leapfrogged Cardiff Blues into second of Pool Three of the Heineken Cup courtesy of a gritty 12-6 victory over the Welsh region at soggy Stade Jean Bouin in Paris on Sunday.
This was vintage Heineken Cup rugby. While there was not a try on offer there was everything else you could have hoped for, and somehow Stade FranÃ§ais emerged victorious, their daunting home record still intact, but only just. Cardiff Blues pushed the French champions to within inches of surrendering not just the record but their interest in this tournament.
The Paris skies, a moody grey, threatened to ruin this game as they spilt forth their content. Yet both teams served up a tension-filled game, one that the home side deserved to edge. For their efforts the Blues came away with a priceless bonus point but it could have been so much more.
Looking back, there were several turning points, none more important than in the 25th minute when Nicky Robinson hobbled from the fray, leaving the Blues without a recognised fly-half and two scrum-halves forming the half-back pairing. Whilst a major problem, it failed to halt the Blues' efforts as their pack threw down the gauntlet in fine fashion, but it severely hindered their kicking game.
Stade may look at their own injury problem as a blessing, Juan Martin HernÃ ndez joining Robinson on the crocked list on the half hour, allowing the more tactically-minded David Skrela to take control. With the game hanging in the balance the Blues laid siege to the Stade FranÃ§ais line, only to be repelled by a stout defence and costly errors on their own behalf.
Playing with a howling wind at their backs, the home side ground their opponents down, kicking and driving their way around the Blues' territory in the opening half. That the Blues trudged off at half-time trailing by only six points was a testament to their gritty defensive efforts. HernÃ ndez slotting two penalties, and Skrela one, to Ben Blair's solitary effort in reply.
As tight fives go Stade have one of the best in the business, capable of sucking the very life out of most opposition packs. But credit to the Blues who stood toe-to-toe with them, and but for a slight lack of patience they may well have trumped them late on.
Skrela stretched the lead with his second penalty, only to see Blair trim it back to six points five minutes later. The stage was set for the final quarter and the Blues took centre, gifted field position from a Mathieu Blin infringement. Xavier Rush turned down the three points, not such a bad choice with a swirling wind and driving rain, and so began the Blues' monster effort at winning the game.
Phase after phase they came at the blue wall that confronted them, and time and again they were sent back. When it did seem they would make a telling drive the ball was lost, spilt forward in treacherous conditions, first by Gethin Jenkins and then by Rush himself. Both times it seemed as if Stade would clear, both times they granted the Blues a reprieve with their own uncharacteristic errors.
With every drive the Blues edged forward but never enough to make a difference, and eventually Paul Tito was penalised for holding on and the ball was finally cleared. Then came the Stade effort, fifteen phases of tight play, grinding their way forward slowly but surely. They also lost the ball in a vital position, as they looked to leave the Blues with nothing.
A last chance for the Blues but with over sixty metres to go they opted not to risk their bonus-point and as Jamie Robinson kicked long he did so knowing the game was up, Stade had survived an almighty onslaught. The relief was there for all to see as the hands were raised in victory, they had survived and in doing so threw the pool right open.
Six days is all these two sides will have to recoup before the second act; if it provides as much entertainment as the first offering then we are in for a thriller. For now though, the Blues head home with a mixture of confidence and thoughts of what might have been.
Man of the match: Stade were forced to dig deep and in doing so RÃ©my Martin and Dimitri Szarzewski produced fine displays. But, despite losing, the award goes to the Blues. Their forwards were superb but it was Maama Molitika who stole this one by a whisker. His driving thrusts caused the defence problems all game, and his work-rate in the tight was tremendous. A deserved winner, but in truth it was a complete forward effort.
For Stade FranÃ§ais:
Pens: HernÃ ndez 2, Skrela 2
For Cardiff Blues:
Pens: Blair 2
Stade FranÃ§ais: 15 Ignacio Corleto, 14 Julien Saubade, 13 Geoffroy Messina, 12 Brian Liebenberg, 11 Julien Arias, 10 Juan Martin HernÃ ndez, 9 JÃ©rÃ´me Fillol, 8 Simon Taylor, 7 RÃ©my Martin, 6 Antoine Burban, 5 Pascal Pape, 4 Cliff Milton, 3 Pieter de Villiers, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski (capt), 1 Rodrigo Roncero.
Replacements: 16 Mathieu Blin, 17 Franck Montanella, 18 Pedro Ledesma, 19 Arnaud Marchois, 20 Alexandre Albouy, 21 David Skrela, 22 StÃ©phane Glas.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Ben Blair, 14 Jamie Roberts, 13 Jamie Robinson, 12 Gareth Thomas, 11 Tom James, 10 Nicky Robinson, 9 Jason Spice, 8 Xavier Rush (c), 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Maama Molitika, 5 Paul Tito, 4 Deiniol Jones, 3 Gary Powell, 2 Gareth Williams, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Taufa'ao Filise, 17 T Rhys Thomas, 18 John Yapp, 19 Scott Morgan, 20 Andy Powell, 21 Richie Rees, 22 Tom Shanklin.
Referee: David Pearson (England)
Touch judges: David Rose (England), Paul Dix (England)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)