Glasgow Caley set themselves up for the Heineken Cup in the best possible way with this league victory at Hughenden last night. It was a nervous win in the end, with Neil Jenkins missing a penalty four minutes into time added on, but as a performance it showed great character. Now equal top with Cardiff and Bridgend, at least until the latter play today, the Reds have a new-found resilience to match their unquestioned ability.
"We wouldn’t have deserved to lose," said Richie Dixon, the Caley coach. "Jenkins is a marvellous kicker and I was almost taken aback when he missed it.
"I was very pleased for the players. That was a tremendous effort and some of the rugby was of a very high standard. We gave away one score, but in general the defence was good. We just took a wee step there, but I’m not getting carried away."
Cardiff had won all five of their league matches going into this game, but without looking at all invincible. They were lucky not to lose to Neath in their first game and also enjoyed some fortune in coming from behind to defeat Bridgend last Saturday. They are, however, adept at winning while playing below their best and threatened to do just that for much of this game.
Tommy Hayes missed a penalty in the first minute, but the Reds opened the scoring shortly thereafter through Gordon McIlwham. The ball was recycled swiftly after Jon Petrie had been held up just short of the line and Gordon Simpson passed out of the tackle to put McIlwham in. Hayes converted.
The Glasgow stand-off and his Cardiff counterpart, Jenkins, exchanged penalties towards the end of the first quarter, by which time the dominance the Reds had enjoyed early on was beginning to wear off. Another penalty from Hayes after half an hour put his team 13-3 up, but Cardiff soon narrowed that gap through a Nick Walne try.
The winger showed some enterprise in dribbling his way through from the edge of the home 22. Glenn Metcalfe, for one, would have done better to fall on the loose ball rather than attempting to hack it clear.
Jenkins converted, then equalised a couple of minutes before half-time with a penalty. Deep into injury time, Hayes regained the lead with another penalty, only to see Jenkins repeat the feat a minute later.
When the Reds retook the lead five minutes into the second half, with a penalty following an offence for which Craig Morgan was sent to the sinbin, it seemed clear that the game would be won by whichever side was willing to expend more energy. As ever, Cardiff gave the impression of being extremely well drilled, but their tendency to play in five-minute bursts suggested somewhat less than a total commitment to the quest for three league points.
It would have been unsurprising if some of the Cardiff players had half an eye on next week’s opening round of Heineken Cup games, as that was what their selectors appeared to be doing in deciding on the team. Rob Howley, the international scrum-half, was just one first-choice player left on the bench. Craig Quinnell, returning back from injury, also started among the replacements, but was pressed into action after half an hour when John Tait was injured.
Ten minutes after his penalty, with Morgan still off the field, Hayes scored again - this time with a try. Hayes’s variable form with the boot continued as he missed the conversion.
A penalty from Jenkins on the hour took Cardiff to within five points of Caley. The Welsh side threw on Howley for Powell and within a minute the No 16 burst through the Caley defence to score in the corner.
Jenkins converted to put Cardiff in front for the first time in the game.
Hayes was wide with a penalty ten minutes from time, and was replaced by Mark McKenzie, who within three minutes did what he had been brought on to do - gave the Reds the lead with a penalty.
Up 27-26, Caley had to hold on for five minutes plus injury time. McKenzie’s miss of another penalty two minutes from the end would have been costly had Jenkins’s last-gasp effort gone over, but that would have been rough justice.
Scorers: Glasgow Caley: Tries: McIlwham, Hayes. Pens: Hayes 4, McKenzie. Con: Hayes.
Cardiff: Tries: Walne, Howley. Pens: Jenkins 4. Cons: Jenkins 2.
Glasgow Caley: G Metcalfe; S Longstaff, A Bulloch, I Jardine, J Craig; T Hayes, G Beveridge; D Hilton, G Bulloch, G McIlwham, S Griffiths, S Campbell, J White, J Petrie, G Simpson. Subs: M Waite for White, half-time. M McKenzie for Hayes, 71.
Cardiff: R Williams; N Walne, J Robinson, P Muller, C Morgan; Jenkins, R Powell; A Lewis, J Humphreys, S John, J Tait, M Voyle, G Kacala, O Williams, D Baugh. Subs: C Quinnell for Tait, 30. R Howley for Powell, 65. W Fyvie for Kacala, 70.
G Thomas for Muller, 78.
Referee: P Thomas (France).