London Irish blew their chances of securing LV= Cup semi-final progression as a solitary score from Gavin Evans and the boot of Rhys Patchell saw Cardiff win a tense encounter 10-6.
The Exiles – topping Pool 3 ahead of the game and having won four on the bounce in January – needed a bonus point win to finish top of their group and must now rely on a big favour from Worcester against Saracens tomorrow.
The game was effectively decided by a first-half blunder from Tom Homer, who made an error of judgement with a bouncing ball in the atrocious muddy conditions.
Cardiff, who included highly rated fly-half Patchell, enjoyed early possession but struggled to make any meaningful inroads into London Irish territory.
The Exiles, who had initially planned to send a development squad to Cardiff, got a foothold in the game after five minutes, with Marland Yarde pressuring the home defence after a good kick through by Guy Armitage.
London Irish, who included seven full internationals in their starting XV, started to punch holes in the home defence, with Chris Hala'ufia prominent inside the first ten minutes with ball in hand.
Atrocious conditions continued to hamper the Exiles’ – chasing LV= Cup semi-final progression – ability to throw the ball around and bring their exciting backline, which included England internationals Topsy Ojo, Shane Geraghty and Jonathan Joseph, into the game.
After Yarde had kept London Irish in the game with a try-saving tackle, Homer kicked the first points of the evening on 22 minutes as he took advantage of a good field position set up by the attacking drive of Armitage, with Cardiff penalised for not rolling away.
The momentum continued to swing from end-to-end and it was Cardiff who had the next opportunity to chalk up a score but unfortunately Patchell couldn’t find his range with a kickable penalty on 32 minutes.
However, the home side, who heading into the game sat bottom of Pool 2 with just one win in this season’s competition, didn’t have to wait long for another opportunity peg back London Irish.
Patchell kicked the ball forward and Homer looked to have plenty of time to clear the danger but the London Irish full-back slipped as he tried to fall on the ball, leaving Evans the simple task of diving on it to score the game’s first try on 34 minutes; with Patchell adding the extras.
Homer had a late chance in the first half to make amends for Irish with a penalty attempt but his effort struck the post, meaning Cardiff went into the break 7-3 to the good.
Early second-half pressure from London Irish was brought to a halt after Geraghty was adjudged to have passed the ball forward to Yarde inside Cardiff territory – Patchell cleared the danger for the home side.
The terrible conditions continued to prevent any rugby being played but the lineout prowess of Exiles’ second row Bryn Evans ensured London Irish came up with regular, quick ball but time and time again the ball was lost forward in the tackle.
Hala’ufia and Armitage continued to punch holes in the Cardiff defence in the opening 15 minutes of the half but as Pat Phibbs spied an opening out wide, Homer was unable to gather the ball and the chance was lost.
It didn’t take long for Homer to make up for his error as he stroked home a penalty from 30-plus yards to reduce the deficit to just a single point.
Patchell started to use the boot more in the final quarter and pen the London Irish back three into their own 22 and Ojo – normally known for his attacking ability – was forced to dive bravely at the feet of onrushing Cardiff defenders.
Irish failed to clear their lines and Cardiff camped in the visitors' 22, forcing the Exiles to eventually make an error but Patchell again missed his effort at the posts.
On the hour Patchell turned down a kickable chance inside his own half in preference of going for touch – highlighting his struggles with the boot.
The dangerous nature of the conditions were again highlighted in the final quarter as Homer misjudged a bouncing ball in Exiles territory but this time the mistake was not punished as Cardiff attackers were bundled into touch.
Patchell finally found his feet in front of goal with just over ten minutes remaining to stretch the Cardiff lead to 10-6.
Armitage looked ready to set up a nervy finale as he was bundled into touch just five metres short of the Cardiff line as the Exiles exerted some late pressure.
Replacement fly-half Ian Humphreys turned down the chance of points in favour of kicking for touch in the final minutes but the Irish drive was thwarted, while minutes later another Irish drive was held up just metres short of the line.