Two tries in the final six minutes allowed Leinster ‘A’ to maintain their unbeaten record in Pool 2 and set up a home quarter-final in the British & Irish Cup.
Twice the 2014 champions led by big margins in a thrilling contest on the artificial surface at Pontypridd’s Sardis Road, but the battling Cardiff Blues Premiership Select XV never gave up and managed to draw level at 27-all with 10 minutes to go.
At that stage all the momentum was with the home side and it became a huge test of character for Noel McNamara’s youngsters. They did not flinch, proved up to the task and finished with a flourish thanks to closing tries from Gavin Mullin and Jack Kelly.
The Blues took the lead with a penalty from Wales Under-18 out-half Ben Thomas 12 minutes after Leinster ‘A’ number 8 Peadar Timmins had been penalised at a ruck on his 22. The Cardiff outfit, without a win to-date this season, dominated possession in the opening quarter, but found themselves running into a Leinster ‘A’ defensive wall.
The first points for Leinster came midway through the first half from inspirational captain Cathal Marsh. It was his ability to get the ball away in a tackle that enabled centre Conor O’Brien to get clear and kick deep into the home 22 and then force an attacking scrum when he tackled home winger Dafydd Smith.
From a solid scrum, Charlie Rock broke to the right and got outside the back row before giving his half-back partner Marsh the chance to beat a lone defender and score a try that he also converted. Two subsequent penalties allowed Leinster ‘A’ to first kick into the home 22 and then launch a quick attack.
With the hosts expecting a kick into the corner, Rock took a quick tap and some crisp passing created enough space for full-back Ciaran Frawley to waltz past his opposite number and score out wide. Now all the pressure was coming from the visitors and centre O’Brien brushed aside two would-be tacklers to score a try just to the side of the posts that Marsh converted to open up a 19-3 lead.
That was a handy lead, yet by half-time it had been cut to a mere four points as the Blues hit back with tries from Smith and Wales Under-20 flanker Jim Botham. The latter came with Leinster ‘A’ down to 14 men after Westmeath man O’Brien had been shown a yellow card for tapping down a pass on halfway.
Resuming with a 19-15 advantage, the ‘A’ team started the second half with a bang and picked up their bonus point try when another break by Marsh was rounded off by young tighthead prop Jack Aungier. Marsh then kicked a penalty off the 22 to extend the lead to 12 points.
But back came the Blues and a kindly bounce from a box kick that landed on the Leinster ‘A’ 10-metre line allowed Thomas to race 40 metres to score. Replacement winger Max Llewellyn then thought he had scored, only to be called back for a final forward pass, but a try at the posts from scrum half Scott Gibson, which Thomas improved, levelled the sides on 70 minutes.
Now it was anyone’s game, but Leinster ‘A’ stuck to their attacking game-plan and came up trumps. Centre Gavin Mullin glided away to score a try that Marsh converted and then the out-half skipped away before using supporting back rower Josh Murphy to send in right winger Jack Kelly for the sixth try.
This time Frawley added the extras to complete the scoring and make it an impressive five bonus point victories out of five ahead of next Saturday’s pool finale against Doncaster Knights at Donnybrook.
With his side now guaranteed top spot and a home quarter-final following Doncaster’s 37-32 loss to Bristol, Leinster ‘A’ head coach McNamara said: “I was very pleased with the character shown by the players, we went 12 or more points up twice, but credit to the Blues, they were tremendous, and twice came back into the game. At 27-all it was looking pretty precarious and so I’m absolutely delighted with the boys to come back and score those two tries at the end.
“The defence was good, but we still conceded 27 points. Cardiff came in with a clear game-plan and they kept the ball for long periods and attacked us around the edges. At times they really put us on the back foot. But there were some defensive sets we were really pleased with and we’re leaving very happy with the result and looking forward to the game against Doncaster.
“We had a really good game against Doncaster over here and we know the threat they are going to bring. We are looking forward to it and it’s nice to get the two games together because the boys will then split up for the Under-20 Six Nations.”
REFEREE: Adam Leal (RFU)