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Page last updated at 13:58 GMT, Monday, 24 May 2010 14:58 UK

Home-spun wisdom seals Cardiff Blues' European glory

Cardiff Blues bask in European glory as the Toulon players look on in despair
Cardiff Blues bask in European glory as the Toulon players look on in despair

By Bruce Pope
BBC Sport Wales

Cardiff Blues upset the odds in more ways than one on Sunday as they became the first Welsh team to claim European silverware.

On the face of it their 28-21 win over Toulon in the French side's backyard of Marseille was down to a fierce defence, moments of attacking brilliance, sheer guts, cool heads and - at the end - brute stamina and willpower to outlast the opposition.

All true, but it was also the product of bitter experience, good management and careful investment.

The Blues' three tries at the Stade Velodrome were scored by centre Jamie Roberts, wing Leigh Halfpenny and lock Bradley Davies.

All three are home-grown Welsh talent who have come through the ranks, Halfpenny beginning first at Ospreys before switching regions to win his spurs alongside his fellow Blues.

Blues must kick on now - Tito

The trio gained places in the Blues senior squad, then Wales honours, and in Roberts' case became British and Irish Lions man of the series last year in South Africa.

"It's incredible... absolutely fantastic, amazing to be a part of... just for all the fans, players and coaches alike. It was pretty eventful," Roberts told BBC Sport Wales after winning the Cup.

"To score in a game of that magnitude is awesome, it's great to see the try scorers coming from the Blues academy.

"Myself, Leigh Halfpenny and Bradley Davies are young guys who have come up through the system.

"That in itself shows great testament to the hard work that has gone on behind the scenes at Cardiff Blues over the last five or six years."

The Blues have a fine crop of overseas players to complement their Welsh cadre and Xavier Rush, Casey Laulala and Maama Molitika were all excellent against Toulon.

But on Sunday the French side were able to field world-renowned stars of the calibre of Jonny Wilkinson, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Joe van Niekerk and Tana Umaga.

The Blues are hardly paupers but their annual budget is dwarfed by the resources poured into Toulon by owner Mourad Boudjellal.

Toulon fly-half Jonny Wilkinson collapses in agony during the final
Toulon fly-half Jonny Wilkinson collapses in agony during the final

There were a few wry smiles this side of the English Channel when it was announced in December that French top-flight teams will be forced to implement a £7.1m salary cap next season.

That figure will still far outstrip the £4m cap that England's Guinness Premiership teams have adopted, with the four regional teams in Wales operating on similar sums.

Blues director of rugby Dai Young, his backroom staff and chairman Peter Thomas have helped slowly build a solid foundation that is now reaping rewards.

That the Challenge Cup title came against one of the newly enriched elite of French rugby makes the achievement that much more impressive.

While it may be the second tier European competition, it has grown in strength and popularity each year.

The record 48,990 crowd in the Stade Velodrome comfortably beat the previous best of 31,986 at Lyon's Stade Gerland in 1999, when Montferrand beat Bourgoin 35-16.

The Blues fans made up perhaps the 990 of that total inside the stadium, travelling to see a piece of Welsh rugby history in the making.

The rest were those garbed in the black and red of Toulon - magnificently noisy and energetic before and during the match, then magnanimous and sociable in defeat.

Both sets of supporters had been treated to a fitting final; tight and incredibly physical - man of the match Sonny Bill Williams' tackle on Blues flanker Molitika perhaps the pick - with flashes of individual brilliance amid the melee.

The loss of England fly-half Wilkinson to a rib injury early in the second half, with Toulon leading 13-6 at that point, was a turning point as the French team lost their guiding light.

But the Blues had also seen one of their inspirational players drop by the wayside, with captain and Lions prop Gethin Jenkins succumbing to a calf injury at half-time.

It was a sad end for Wilkinson at the scene of his 2007 World Cup quarter-final triumph over Australia, but there is much more to come from him and his Toulon team-mates next season.

So too the Blues, who believe that this victory can be used as a springboard to become the first Welsh side to win the Heineken Cup.

606: DEBATE
Saint WLG

Toulon director of rugby Philippe Saint-Andre was in no doubt that the big-match experience the Blues have gathered under Young was a major factor in their favour.

"Cardiff Blues are a very good team who are more used to playing in these big games than us after their experience in the Heineken Cup," Saint-Andre said.

"When they had opportunities to score, they did.

"We should have been 20 points ahead by 50 minutes but we were only seven.

"I'm very proud of my team but we need more collective experience... we will get there."

Fifteen years ago the Blues in their previous incarnation as Cardiff RFC, before the switch to regional teams in Wales, contested the first Heineken Cup final.

Despite having home advantage that January day in 1996 at the old Cardiff Arms Park, Cardiff lost 21-18 to Toulouse after extra time.

No one could have guessed then that it would take another decade and a half for a Welsh side to at last claim European glory.

But with the Blues' achievement the odds have improved that Wales will not have to wait quite so long for a second title.



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see also
Rush re-commits to Cardiff Blues
16 Jun 10 |  Welsh
Wilkinson fit to face Australia
26 May 10 |  Rugby Union
Blues did it hard way, says Young
24 May 10 |  Welsh
Scarlets hail Blues Heineken help
23 May 10 |  Welsh
Wales' sporting weekend in photos
20 May 10 |  Wales
Cardiff Blues 28-21 Toulon
23 May 10 |  Welsh
Cardiff Blues v Toulon as it happened
23 May 10 |  Rugby Union
Wales' record in European finals
23 May 10 |  Welsh
Blues aim to lift Cardiff blues
22 May 10 |  Welsh
Sweeney hails superstar Wilkinson
20 May 10 |  Cardiff Blues
Can the Blues buck Welsh trend?
21 May 10 |  Welsh
French teams to face salary cap
18 Dec 09 |  Rugby Union
European rugby archive
16 Aug 06 |  Rugby Union
European Challenge Cup 2009/10
21 May 09 |  Rugby Union
BBC Sport Wales coverage
03 Oct 11 |  Wales
Rugby Union commentaries
09 Sep 10 |  Rugby Union


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