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Unless Blues can turn on the power the lights will fade rapidly on their quest for Heineken glory.

Byline: Delme Parfitt

Delme Parfitt at Franklin's Gardens NORTHAMPTON CARDIFF BLUES 23 TRIES J Diggin, C Ashton CONS S Myler (2) PENS Myler (3) 15 PENS D Parks (5) B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, P Diggin; S Myler, R Powell; S Tonga'uiha (R Dreyer 79), D Hartley [umlaut], B Mujati (T Mercey 76); C Lawes, C Day; P Dowson (C Clarke 66), T Wood (B Sharman 67), R Wilson.

C Czekaj; R Mustoe (J Yapp 46-50) (R Williams 77-80), C Laulala, T Shanklin, T James; D Parks, R Rees; G Jenkins, G Williams, T Filise; B Davies, P Tito [umlaut] (M Paterson 55); M Molitika, M Williams (S Warburton 55), X Rush.

Attendance: 13,499 Referee: Roman Poite (France) POOL ONE P WD L F A TrBPPts Northampton ............................................................................. 3 3 0 0 72 56 7 0 12 Castres ................................................................................. .... 3 2 0 1 62 54 5 1 9 CARDIFF BLUES ...................................................................... 3 1 0 2 53 67 4 1 5 Edinburgh ................................................................................. 3 0 0 3 60 70 6 3 3 WITH three minutes to go of this hardfought encounter, two out of the four floodlights at Franklin's Gardens failed.

It didn't matter to the course of the game. Referee Roman Poite simply consulted with the two captains and the commonsense decision to play out what little time there was left was taken.

But if you were looking for portents as to what lies ahead for Blues in the Heineken Cup this season then the dimness of those closing stages was all that was needed.

You sense we're witnessing the dying of the light as far as any hopes Dai Young's men have of reaching the knock-out stages of the premier tournament are concerned, with another crack at the Amlin Challenge Cup looking their likeliest fate right now.

We can't give up on them completely because a win in the return match against Northampton this weekend would mean they are still in with a shout of gaining qualification from Pool One.

But realistically you just can't see them being able to do enough - and that was certainly the case on Saturday night.

Blues weren't all bad by any means and when they got their high-tempo off-loading game going they looked the more dangerous of the two sides.

Some of their one-eyed followers would have left the ground complaining that their side had played all the rugby.

While that would have been a dubious conclusion, Northampton were limited in their ambition.

Yet Blues were never going to prevail for the simple reason that they were routed at the set piece.

Young admitted that the Blues had travelled somewhat anxious about the problems the much-vaunted Saints scrum would cause them - and all those fears were borne out.

When referee Poite penalised Northampton on the first two shoves you began to wonder whether Young's pre-match mind games about the so-called illegal tactics of tight-head Brian Mujati had done the trick.

We soon discovered they hadn't. Following an early Dan Parks penalty that capped a hugely promising first 10 minutes for the Blues, Northampton pummelled them at the set piece, eventually getting their reward when wing Paul Diggin got in at the corner for the first try.

After that the writing was on the wall, with the Blues pack knowing that a desperate holding operation was about the best they would be able to muster for the rest of the evening.

However, their problems were compounded by the fact that their lineout capitulated as well, something Young stressed afterwards he hadn't anticipated.

Three times in the first half hour the Blues worked themselves into promising attacking positions only to undo their good work by failing to claim the ball on their own throw. It would have been easy to complain about inaccurate throwing on the part of hooker Gareth Williams, but more of the blame should be shouldered by captain and lineout organiser Paul Tito.

Too often Tito appeared to call for the ball to be delivered in close proximity to England second row Courtney Lawes, who was able to snaffle possession and get the Saints off the hook.

That the Blues were leading 12-7 just three minutes from the interval, and that they went in at the break 12-10 ahead, said it all about their ability to scramble, and the limited nature of Northampton's game-plan.

And of course there was also the fact that Parks was in the zone kicking at goal, landing four attempts, three from range, courtesy of some beautifully crisp ball striking.

Northampton's indiscipline let them down over the course of the game, with centre James Downey, Lawes and the pugnacious hooker Dylan Hartley all receiving yellow cards, though Blues front-row pair of Tau Filise and Gareth Williams also had spells in the cooler.

Hartley's offence was the only one that drew consternation, with the Nothampton skipper appearing to be at the heart of a dangerous shove at a scrum after Poite had blown his whistle that could have resulted in serious injury.

His actions sparked an unseemly melee as the Blues pack objected, but by then the battle as a whole was done and dus-ted. A try immediately after half time from England wing Chris Ashton had set the Saints on their way and they never looked back from that score.

It came when the Blues pack were too slow to support Tito after he had claimed the restart and possession was lost, allowing Northampton to work an overlap and put their right winger in.

Thereafter the Blues never stopped trying, but it was one-way traffic, the muscular Northampton eight controlling matters and fly-half Steven Myler playing the percentages by just kicking down the tram-lines.

The Saints knew that was all they needed to do and they never really looked bothered about chasing down a bonus point.

That is what the Blues will need at Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday if they are to remain in the hunt for the knock-out stages; but on this evidence you can't see it. Yes, they were missing Jamie Roberts, Ben Blair and Leigh Halfpenny from their back line and those three, Roberts in particular, with his go-forward capability, will bolster them when they return from injury.

But you can't help feeling it's the rather staid look of the forward pack that is preventing the Blues from challenging at the highest level right now.

They desperately need a gnarled and proven tight-head prop and another quality option at second row; and they also need old war horses Xavier Rush, Maama Molitika and Martyn Williams to draw on their deep reserves and start producing their best form once more.

Rush is nowhere near as prominent as he was at times last season and as a unit Blues back row was looking its age at Franklin's Gardens, which was over 100 years combined. Young also sorely needs Kiwi Michael Paterson to be more influential in the second half of the season than he has been in the first - and that process could start with nailing down what is his very best position.

Blues may yet find a spark to ignite what, up to now, has been a frustrating campaign, but at the moment, just like those floodlights, it's hard to see where the power is going to come from.

CAPTION(S):

Blues' Chris Czekaj and Northampton Saints' Lee Dickson compete for the high ball The game ends in semi-darkness after floodlight failure on one side of the ground
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 13, 2010
Words:1243
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