EDINBURGH produced an improving display in the Welsh capital but their battle for respect goes on after they slumped to a fourth defeat that leaves them anchored to the foot of the RaboDirect PRO12.
Scorers: Cardiff: Tries - Cuthbert 2; Pens - Halfpenny 5; Cons - Halfpenny 2. Edinburgh: Pens - Laidlaw 4..
The Scottish side did not, ultimately, play enough rugby to win the game and Cardiff deserved what was a morale-boosting victory in their turgid start to the season due to an impressive finish.
But you do have to witness this up close to realise how tough it can be for Scottish sides to get a fair deal in Wales.
Glasgow overcame bizarre officiating to hold on for victory against the Scarlets in Llanelli on Saturday night, but an evenly balanced game in the Arms Park yesterday turned on a series of decisions in the third quarter by Irish referee George Clancy that punctured Edinburgh momentum and handed it to the hosts.
Cardiff did not need to be asked twice and three Halfpenny penalties and conversion of a second Alex Cuthbert try, with Lions skipper Sam Warburton also influential, sewed it up.
Both sides pitched up with just one win from their first four games, the Blues having beaten Connacht at home on the same weekend that Edinburgh claimed their sole victory, at home to the Dragons. Their meetings last season both ended in narrow away wins, and there was precious little between the sides on the fast-running 3G pitch yesterday.
The hosts had their five British and Irish Lions together for the first time this season, Gethin Jenkins making his return from Toulon, to join Halfpenny, Cuthbert, Warburton and 2009 Lion Matthew Rees, and Edinburgh’s one, Ross Ford, was present.
Edinburgh’s pack improved in the set-piece, Greig Laidlaw returned from injury to provide a constant inspiration to his side and, after an early Halfpenny penalty, Edinburgh revealed a promising attacking side when the impressive Harry Leonard sent Dougie Fife haring into a gap, and he found Ben Atiga, only for the Kiwi’s poor pass wide to Tim Visser to go to ground. Still, the pressure remained and Laidlaw took the chance to level matters with a penalty from over 45 metres in the 16th minute.
Edinburgh’s confidence rose on the back of good defensive work, and Laidlaw struck another penalty from near halfway. Matt Scott replaced an injured Atiga, while Halfpenny was striking his second penalty to bring the scores back level, 6-6, and then Cardiff grabbed the game’s first try.
Edinburgh had been turned over deep in the Cardiff half, and the Blues seemed to be well marshalled on their left, but Harry Robinson kicked down the touchline, collected and fed inside to Owen Williams.
Williams was well tackled by Dougie Fife and, controversially, got up and tried to make more ground while Fife clearly held his leg. Clancy deemed Fife’s tackle to have been broken, and let play continue and wing Cuthbert squeezed into the corner.
Halfpenny converted to push the hosts into a 13-6 lead, but Edinburgh had been building a way into the game and, though lacking a decisive threat, they continued on the restart, earning another penalty which Laidlaw converted from well out to cut the deficit to four points with eight minutes of the first half left.
Edinburgh’s improving kicking game pinned Cardiff back, and when Warburton cynically stopped quick ball at a ruck 15 metres from the home line, referee Clancy immediately whistled and reached for his pocket. That drew the ire of the Arms Park crowd.
He called over Blues skipper Rees, but appeared to change his mind about a yellow card and warned Rees instead.
Laidlaw slotted the resultant penalty to send the sides inside at half-time with Cardiff leading 13-12. Ford and David Denton provided a strong lead for the Scots after the break, injured lock Izak van der Westhuizen having been replaced by new Australian signing Ollie Atkins, and a high tackle by Bradley Davies handed Laidlaw the chance to put Edinburgh ahead for the first time in the game.
But then came a match-defining series of blows for Laidlaw’s side.
First, his kick came back off an upright and then, from terrific phases by the visitors, Clancy and the television match official Gareth Simmonds took a full four minutes deliberation before deeming Tomas Leonardi guilty of a double movement in placing the ball over the Cardiff line. It was a strange one – Leonardi had appeared suddenly from a ruck – but what followed was typical of a team down on its luck.
Clancy penalised Denton for a knock-on that had gone backwards, whistled up a scrum Edinburgh were dominating, seemingly at the insistence of Cardiff scrum-half Lloyd Williams, penalised Edinburgh at a ruck deep in the Blues half where Paulo was sealing off the Edinburgh ball-carrier while prostrate, and then penalised Edinburgh for not moving away at a ruck outside their 22 when visiting players were being held by their opponents and visibly trying to extricate themselves.
That left Laidlaw furious and pleading with the official for fairness, while Halfpenny expertly slotted three penalties to open up a 22-12 lead.
Then, with Cornell du Preez, the openside flanker making his Edinburgh debut as a substitute, shown a yellow card for a ruck infringement, Cardiff delivered a stunning coup de grace fit to win any game.
Exploiting the fact that Edinburgh had two players down receiving treatment as well as du Preez off, Halfpenny came on to a pass at great pace, drew a defender and passed to Warburton, who instantly fed Cuthbert and the winger cantered in under the crossbar.
Cuthbert was only denied a hat-trick by a terrific last-ditch tackle by his namesake Jack, the Edinburgh full-back, and that epitomised an impressive show of work-rate and desire in the Scottish side, but did nothing to improve Edinburgh’s miserable start to the season.
Cardiff: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, O Williams, C Allen, H Robinson; R Patchell, L Mitchell; G Jenkins, M Rees (capt), T Filise, B Davies, F Paulo, J Navidi, S Warburton, A Pretorius. Subs: D Hewitt for O Williams 32mins, R Copeland for Pretorius 46, S Andrews for Filise, S Hobbs for Jenkins, both 60, L Jones for L Williams 73, K Dacey for Rees, L Reed for Paulo, G Davies for Patchell, all 75.
Edinburgh: J Cuthbert; D Fife, J Dominguez, B Atiga, T Visser; H Leonard, G Laidlaw (capt); A Dickinson, R Ford, W Nel, S Cox, I van der Westhuizen, D Basilaia, T Leonardi, D Denton. Subs: M Scott for Atiga 25mins, O Atkins on for van der Westhuizen 40, C du Preez for Leonardi 46, W Blaauw for Dickinson 62, S Hidalgo-Clyne for Dominguez 75.