European Challenge Cup final: Cardiff Blues 31-30 Gloucester
|European Challenge Cup final|
|Cardiff Blues (6) 31|
|Tries: T Williams, Smith, Scully Cons: J Evans 2 Pens: J Evans 3, Anscombe|
|Gloucester (20) 30|
|Tries: Trinder, Atkinson, Hanson Cons: Twelvetrees 3 Pens: Twelvetrees 3|
Cardiff Blues overhauled Gloucester in a stirring comeback to win a thrilling Challenge Cup final in Bilbao.
Tries from Henry Trinder and Mark Atkinson - the second a superb team score - gave Gloucester a 20-6 lead.
Blues hit back with Tomos Williams' brilliant footballing dribble and Garyn Smith's try, only for James Hanson to restore Gloucester's lead.
But Blaine Scully's late try and Gareth Anscombe's nerveless last-minute penalty snatched victory for the Blues.
The Wales international's kick capped a wildly dramatic finale and prompted the Blues' players and staff to rush on to the pitch at the final whistle to celebrate.
A second Challenge Cup title for the region - the only Welsh team to win a European trophy - also gave head coach Danny Wilson the perfect send-off before he joins Wasps in the summer.
For Gloucester, meanwhile, it was a shattering manner in which to miss out on a record-equalling third Challenge Cup triumph, having been in a position of such control with a 20-6 lead at the break.
It was also the second successive season in which the Cherry and Whites were beaten in the final, having lost to Stade Francais last year.
Heartbreak for Gloucester
In the first European final hosted in a non-Six Nations country, San Mames - the 53,000-capacity home of Athletic Bilbao - made for a spectacular backdrop.
However, a patchy crowd contributed to a somewhat underwhelming atmosphere at times despite the entertainment on the pitch.
After Evans' early penalty for the Blues, Gloucester responded with a fine score fashioned by the boot of his opposite number, Billy Burns, whose crossfield kick was well gathered by Trinder to touch down in the corner.
Blaine Scully thought he had restored the Blues' lead moments later but his try was disallowed after replays showed his foot had been dragged into touch by Callum Braley's covering tackle.
The opening quarter was breathless, but the intensity dropped markedly as the match was disrupted by injuries to two Blues players.
Flanker Josh Navidi was the first to be forced off with his arm in a sling - making him a doubt for Wales' summer tour - and wing Owen Lane followed him with a similar looking shoulder injury.
Seemingly unsettled by those departures, Blues looked off the pace for the remainder of the first half, and Gloucester exploited their sloppiness with an incisive second try.
Billy Twelvetrees wriggled his way out of two tackles and fed Trinder, and the wing was well supported by Braley, whose running angle and perfectly-timed pass set Atkinson free to canter over.
Twelvetrees converted the try and added another penalty to give the English side a commanding 20-6 half-time lead, and what seemed to be one hand on the trophy.
Like Salah in full flight
Overwhelmed by their opponents before the break and seemingly vulnerable to a thrashing, the Blues were transformed at the start of the second half.
Collecting possession in a wide position, Anscombe chipped the ball over the Gloucester defensive line, and Williams was the first to it.
The scrum-half ahead once past Braley and then, still using his left foot, cut inside like Mohamed Salah in full flight before instinctively gathering after the ball rebounded off an upright to score.
It was a brilliantly innovative and adaptive try, and one which sparked a scintillating Blues comeback.
Their second try was also the product of intelligent kicking; this time Evans' neat little through ball of a grubber popping up nicely for Garyn Smith - Lane's replacement - to touch down.
With an Evans penalty coming in between those scores, Blues suddenly found themselves leading 23-20.
The advantage was short-lived as Hanson bundled over at the back of a driving maul.
But the Blues were not to be denied.
Euphoric celebrations for Blues
Wilson's men pummelled the Gloucester try line in the closing stages and, after the Cherry and Whites' flanker Lewis Ludlow was sent to the sin-bin, Blues capitalised on their numerical advantage as Scully squeezed over in the corner.
With three minutes remaining, it left Anscombe with a difficult touchline conversion which he pulled wide, to the dismay of the anxious Blues fans.
But the Wales man redeemed himself - and then some - when Blues were awarded a penalty on the opposite touchline with less than 60 seconds left on the clock.
Anscombe was remarkably calm as he curled the ball through the posts and, after his team-mates safely gathered the restart, he was able to let loose when he kicked into touch to spark euphoric celebrations.
Cardiff Blues head coach Danny Wilson: "It's a fantastic feeling. For this group over a three-year period to go through the ups and downs we've gone through and to finish it off in the style we have to win some silverware is fantastic and something I'll always remember.
"We just didn't look like ourselves first half - as we said then, we didn't fire any shots.
"We weren't defending or attacking like us so we decided to play from deeper. That paid off and defensively we made lower tackles to get our jacklers in the game."
Gloucester boss Johan Ackermann: "I am not going to sleep well for the next seven or eight nights because it is the third final in a row I have lost.
"I said in the changing room after, that's life.
"If everyone can say they have a smooth sailing in life, no mistakes, setbacks, disappointments, heartache or sorrow, it would have been a great life. Someone had to lose."
Cardiff Blues: Anscombe; Lane, Lee-Lo, Halaholo, Scully; Evans, Williams; Gill, Dacey, Filise, Davies, Turnbull, Navidi, Jenkins (c), Williams.
Replacements: Myhill, Thyer, Andrews, Welch, Robinson, Williams, Smith, Morgan.
Gloucester: Woodward; Marshall, Twelvetrees, Atkinson, Trinder; Burns, Braley; Hohneck, Hanson, Afoa, Slater (c), Galarza, Polledri, Ludlow, Ackermann.
Replacements: Matu'u, Rapava Ruskin, Balmain, Clarke, Morgan, Vellacott, Symons, Hudson.
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