Cardiff Blues 31-30 Gloucester: Final-minute Gareth Anscombe penalty pinches Challenge Cup for Blues
By Michael Cantillon at San Mames Stadium
Last Updated: 12/05/18 8:18am
A last-gasp Gareth Anscombe penalty ensured the Cardiff Blues secured a second Challenge Cup title in their history on Friday night, courtesy of a highly dramatic 31-30 victory over Gloucester in Bilbao.
In a game in which the lead changed hands five times, first half tries from wing Henry Trinder and inside-centre Mark Atkinson - combined with the metronomic boot of Billy Twelvetrees looked set to hand Johan Ackermann's charges a comfortable victory and record-equalling third Challenge Cup title.
But a superb second-half Blues fightback saw tries from Tomos Williams and Garyn Smith, plus the boot of Jarrod Evans force the PRO14 outfit into the lead.
Even then, a maul try from hooker James Hanson restored Gloucester's lead near the hour mark and with the Cherry & Whites pack displaying dominance at the set-piece thereafter, the Blues looked as if they would not be able to produce a second thrilling comeback.
A critical late Lewis Ludlow sin-binning was followed by a Blaine Scully try for the Blues with four minutes left, but when Anscombe missed the conversion from the touchline the chance looked to have gone.
That was until replacement back Smith earned a breakdown penalty after an Anscombe hack downfield in the dying minutes, and this time the full-back made no mistake from the tee from out wide to cue jubilant scenes in the San Mames Stadium.
The Blues hit the front as early as the fifth minute when flanker Josh Navidi earned his 11th Challenge Cup turnover of the season, winning a breakdown penalty after a textbook jackal, which fly-half Jarrod Evans dispatched from 42 metres out.
The blindside was forced off injured a little over a minute later through an arm injury, however, and from the next attack, Gloucester registered the first try of the evening through wing Trinder in the corner after a sensationally flat and accurate cross-field kick from Billy Burns.
On 13 minutes, the Blues passed up a gilt-edged chance to retrieve the lead when wing Scully was just dragged into touch - while also appearing to fail to ground the ball in the corner - after a brilliant tackle from Gloucester scrum-half Callum Braley.
Superb approach play down the right hand side saw Owen Lane and Rey Lee-Lo combine to create the chance for Scully - though the Samoan centre perhaps gave the final pass a tad early.
Two minutes later, the Blues ticked the scoreboard over once more through Evans after Gloucester were penalised for failing to roll away, but Twelvetrees stretched Gloucester's lead out to 10 points in the 27th minute with a penalty from close range after it was the Blues' turn to fall foul of referee Jerome Garces for the same offence.
Gloucester thought they were over for a second try on the half hour mark, as openside Ludlow strolled over following a stunning Josh Hohneck offload, but touch judge Romain Poite pulled play back for a forward pass - an extremely harsh looking decision based on replays.
Two minutes from the end of the half Gloucester did have their second try, however, and what a magnificent score it was.
Beginning within the Gloucester half, Twelvetrees made a break on the outside edge before releasing left wing Trinder, who in turn seared down the flank at terrific speed before finding Braley on the inside. The scrum-half then producing a brilliant reverse pass to the on-rushing Atkinson, who collected and sprinted in to dive by the posts.
In the final play of the half, Gloucester added more points to their lead after Blues skipper Ellis Jenkins - who had been at his usual effective best at the breakdown - was penalised for playing the ball off his feet and Twelvetrees made him pay by dispatching the final kick of the half for a 20-6 half-time score.
In double quick time, the Blues were in serious trouble. But just 53 seconds into the second period, Blues scrum-half Williams scored a fantastic try to bring the Welsh region right back into the final.
Having shown great pace to collect an Anscombe chip - who had himself just recollected his own kick - Williams grubber kicked the ball twice ahead of himself and, despite seemingly being impeded twice by Gloucester players, was alive enough to react to his second kick bouncing back off the padding of the post and dive over, in a stroke of some fortune.
Gloucester flanker Jake Polledri was pinged for going off feet at the ruck on 50 minutes, and Evans' successful penalty from 30 metres out cut the gap to four points.
Five minutes later, the comeback was complete when replacement Smith sprinted on to Evans' inch-perfect dab ahead with the outside of the out-half's boot. Evans' conversion giving the Blues a three point lead.
On 59 minutes, the game swung again as after Trinder kicked ahead and tackled Evans into touch, Gloucester hooker Hanson was at the back of an unstoppably powerful maul. Twelvetrees converted for a four point lead.
A crunching Ludlow tackle on Anscombe forced a knock on soon after, and the Gloucester pack once again displayed their superior power by marching the Blues back and winning a penalty, which Twelvetrees once again slotted between the sticks.
A startling Matthew Morgan break with eight minutes remaining put the Blues onto the front foot, but having turned down two shots at goal for kicks to the corner, they couldn't break past a resolute Gloucester defence.
With four minutes left, they did get past that defence though, as with Ludlow in the sin-bin, the Blues stretched the Gloucester rear-guard before shipping the ball wide for Scully, who was not to be denied this time.
Crucially, however, Anscombe's conversion from tight to the touchline sailed wide for the first miss from the tee of the match and seemingly the trophy was Gloucester's.
Off the restart, though, in the very final minute of both these sides' seasons, Anscombe produced a brave cross-field kick to Smith, who hacked ahead, jackaled and earned the decision from referee Garces at the breakdown, handing Anscombe a chance at glory and a redeeming kick.
The Wales international made no mistake and though there was time for the restart, Burns' kick from halfway was the last touch of the ball from any Gloucester player as the Blues players and coaching staff celebrated in unison after a quite brilliant final.