Cardiff restored a measure of lost pride as they pushed Saracens all the way in Sunday’s European Challenge Cup last-16 tie at the StoneX Stadium.
The Welsh club had been hammered 49-14 by the Scarlets in their previous outing, a defeat that prompted severe and justified criticism. But Dai Young’s team were reading from a different playbook against Sarries as they fronted up in defence and had their moments in attack with Tomos Williams outstanding.
They were leading 20-16 in the third quarter, only for their English host to hit back with four tries in 17 minutes, all of which official man-of-the-match Max Malins had a hand in.
It was a purple patch that effectively settled the game, though Cardiff went down fighting, with a late Rhys Carre try setting up keeping them in the match until the very end.
But they couldn’t take proceedings into extra time.
For Saracens, Sean Maitland scored two tries and there was one apiece from Dominic Morris, Malins and Aled Davies, with Owen Farrell adding the rest of their points.
Cardiff’s touchdowns came from Williams, Owen Lane and Rhys Carre. Rhys Priestland kicked 16 points and Jarrod Evans supplied a conversion.
The defeat brought the curtain down on Wales’ European season, a campaign that unfolded without a Welsh team winning a single game on the field. Covid-quarantine issues affected Cardiff and the Scarlets, in particular, but all concerned will hope for much better next term.
Eight days on losing heavily to the Scarlets in the United Rugby Championship, Cardiff were combative and didn’t back down in the collisions, with Corey Domachowski unceremoniously slamming the door shut on Maro Itoje early on and Josh Navidi levelling Jackson Wray.
Saracens had their moments in attack but were forced to rely on the boot of Farrell for their early points as the England international posted a hat-trick of penalties. With Priestland punishing home indiscipline twice, the score was 9-6 in the English team’s favour heading towards the break.
Suddenly the game ignited with two tries.
The first came from the hosts, seeing Duncan Taylor bamboozle the Cardiff defence as he dummied inside before sending the ball the other way for Morris to cut through.
But Tomos Williams soon showed he had tricks in his locker as well.
Collecting the ball from a line-out, he sliced through the Saracens cover with a hint of a dummy and an injection of pace before slaloming his way past a defender. Taylor brought him down but Williams was able to touch down by rolling over after landing on his back.
Had he disappeared in a puff of smoke at that point, the picture would have been complete.
Cardiff had contested strongly from the opening whistle, with Botham and Navidi to the fore, the pair tackling hard and proving threats at the breakdown, with one Botham turnover proving a textbook affair.
The Welsh side had the chance to score the first try after Hallam Amos split the home cover with a smooth break which saw him fairly eat up the group. A simple two-on-one beckoned, but Lane failed to catch Amos’s pass. It was slightly high, but the wing should have taken it.
He atoned early in the second half by taking a chance created by Williams, only for Saracens to hit their straps with their very own M people, Malins and Maitland, opening up the Welsh team. Maitland’s two scores were created by Malins, then the left wing broke again in the run-up to Aled Davies’ try before touching down himself.
Credit Cardiff for refusing to throw in the towel as Carre crossed.
But it wasn’t enough, with Sarries holding firm.
Tries: D. Morris, S. Maitland (2), A. Davies, M. Malins.
Cons: O. Farrell (3).
Pens: O. Farrell (3)
Tries: T. Williams, O. Lane, R. Carre.
Cons: R. Priestland (2), J. Evans.
Penalties: R. Priestland (4).