Cardiff Blues secured their third win in as many weeks on Sunday afternoon as we beat Zebre in testing conditions at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi. A game for defences, where the visitors came out on top.
Going into the game, Cardiff Blues were well aware of how tough it would be to travel to Parma and get a result, with both of the Guinness Pro14 Italian sides having their best season since joining the league.
It was made more difficult by a number of senior players pulling out after picking up knocks against Munster. Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Nick Williams did not make the trip, replaced by Rhys Gill, Kirby Myhill and Josh Turnbull, respectively.
Damian Welch also started, with Seb Davies not released by Wales, while Olly Robinson replaced Macauley Cook, and Anton Peikrishvili started ahead of Fa'ao Filise. On the bench there were nods for Scott Andrews, James Down, Alun Lawrence and Blaine Scully, while Dragons hooker Rhys Buckley was drafted in for cover.
In freezing conditions in Parma, on a pitch that appeared surprisingly soft, good to soft in places, it was Cardiff Blues who would start on the attack with Owen Lane looking dangerous. A penalty in midfield allowed Jarrod Evans to kick us into Zebre's half, but it quickly became apparent that the hosts would be a tough side to break down.
Eventually the attack came undone as winger Gabriele Di Giulio intercepted a Rhun Williams pass, although Ellis Jenkins did well to track back and cover the chip into the in-goal area.
Despite that danger being averted, Zebre would dominate the next period of play as they setup camp inside the Cardiff Blues 10 metre line. It would take three big defensive efforts by the visitors to hold the ball up and deny the Italians the opening try.
First they were held up from a driving maul, then George Earle denied captain Guglielmo Palazzani, before Rey Lee-Lo, assisted by Josh Turnbull and Olly Robinson, managed to contain charging number eight Derick Minnie. Eventually a Turnbull turnover allowed Cardiff to clear our lines.
As the mid-point of the first half came around with the score still 0-0, it seemed to be the Blues who were more likely to make something happened, mainly through the boot of Evans.
A punt through was well chased by Olly Robinson, although we was harshly penalised for tripping Rory Parata, before Garyn Smith was just beaten to a chip through by the Zebre full-back. Unfortunately a third kick went out on the full.
Following the agreed format of 'Cardiff attack, Zebre attack', it was the hosts next on the hunt to break the deadlock. Another strong lineout drive almost came up trumps, but for some superb George Earle maul defence, before an excellent Aled Summerhill turnover stopped a dangerous looking attack after Faialaga Afamasaga had driven forwards.
In the end, 27 minutes would be the magic time on the clock, as Cardiff Blues got the first score of the game from a fairly innocuous passage of play. Zebre had possession, going through phase play in midfield, before Ellis read them well and produced an interception.
The flanker immediately tried to launch a counter-attack, but it seemed his loose pass would be immediately intercepted back. Fortunately Giulio Bisegni couldn't quick secure the ball, allowing Lee-Lo to pounce and quite the offload away for Owen Lane to streak clear, step the full-back and score under the posts.
Jarrod Evans kicked the conversion, and Cardiff were quickly back on the attack in midfield. Some strong carries from Summerhill and Robinson got us into Zebre's half, before Evans kicked into space on the right wing. Summerhill gave chase and appeared to have got the ball down, but the TMO decided he had just lost control.
Still the hunt to extend the lead continued, and the Blues pressed. Forward carries gave good ball to the backs and Jarrod went wide to Rhun. With Lane and Smith on his outside a try looked on, but Giovanbattista Venditti went for the jugular and made the interception before going the length of the field to score.
Palazzani kicked the conversion, but within five phases of the restart Zebre had infringed at the breakdown. Jarrod Evans managed to kick the penalty, meaning that all the game's points had been scored in a 10-minute period just before half-time.
Of course, the players did not know that at the time, and proceeded to embark on a sheer battle of a 40 minutes. On a rapidly deteriorating surface, Zebre threw everything and the kitchen sink at Cardiff Blues, pushing almost 70% possession and territory after half-time.
The away side were in no mood to give up any easy points though, defending desperately throughout that second period. Organisationally we were superb, but you need something extra beyond that, a commitment and desire to put in the hits, compete at the breakdown and chase down kicks.
Rhys Gill, Kirby Myhill, George Earle, Olly Robinson, Ellis Jenkins and Josh Turnbull all made 17 tackles or more. Overall, Cardiff Blues made 174 tackles at an 87% tackle success rate. We forced Zebre into conceding 20 turnovers. An illustration of the monumental effort that went into securing the win in Parma.
There were a number of crucial moments that went into preventing Zebre scoring, including turnovers from Josh Turnbull, Rey Lee-Lo and Brad Thyer, a lineout steal from Turnbull, and some pressure relieving carries from Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans.
Perhaps the most important moment came quite early on in the half though, as Zebre fly-half Serafin Bordoli chipped wide for James Tucker. The flanker collected possession, but just before being able to offload for Di Giulio to score in the corner, Rhun Williams put in a huge hit resulting in Tucker stepping on the try line.
The tackle resulted in the young full-back appearing to seriously hurt his left shoulder, a real example of players putting their bodies on the line for the jersey, and we wish Rhun a speedy recovery.
There were areas of the game that could have been improved, mainly around how we used what little possession we did have in the second half. Twice towards the end of the game possession was kicked away cheaply, allowing Zebre to quickly put us back under pressure.
However, the young half-backs Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans are still learning the game, and each had far more positives than negatives to their performances. They are naturally attacking players, and will no doubt develop their game management skills as time goes on.
Now the players and coaches face a short turnaround to a Friday night encounter with Benetton Treviso, in the second part of the 'Italian Job'.
Cardiff Blues are already on a run of five consecutive wins across the Pro14 and Challenge Cup, our best run of form since October/November 2011. With victory on Friday would come the most successful Six Nations fixture block since the 2003 re-branding.
Hopefully those with aching or injured bodies will heal in time to turn out at the Arms Park against Benetton, as the big games keep rolling around. The forecast is cold, but the ticket is the hottest in town, so make sure you're there to support the boys on Friday. Come on Cardiff!