Cardiff Blues 36 Racing Metro 30: Welsh side edge into last-eight
Cardiff Blues booked their Heineken Cup quarter-final place – but not before Wales coach Warren Gatland was dealt another major pre-Six Nations injury scare.
Blues and Wales prop Gethin Jenkins went off six minutes before half-time at Cardiff City Stadium nursing what appeared to be a knee problem.
Gatland has already lost Jenkins' fellow forwards Luke Charteris, Alun-Wyn Jones and Lloyd Burns from the tournament – Wales' opening game against Ireland is just a fortnight away – while fly-half Rhys Priestland and flanker Dan Lydiate both suffered injuries during Saturday's action.
Clining on: Cardiff's Xavier Rush (left) held up by Sebastien Descons
Despite Jenkins' early exit, the Blues secured a last-eight berth – albeit away against Heineken Cup holders Leinster – thanks to wing Alex Cuthbert's try double, a Lloyd Williams touchdown and 21 points from full-back Leigh Halfpenny, including five penalties.
Edinburgh's bonus point win against London Irish at Murrayfield, though, means the Blues qualify as best runners-up and not Pool Two top dogs, travelling to Dublin rather than hosting Clermont Auvergne.
Racing pushed them all the way, scoring tries through their former Exeter full-back Josh Matavesi and wing Sireli Bobo, with fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski kicking three penalties, centre Francois Steyn two and scrum-half Sebastien Descons a conversion and penalty.
Neither side went more than six points ahead at any time in the contest – a statistic that did little to calm nerves among an 8,000 crowd – and Cardiff ultimately failed to keep group challengers Edinburgh at bay, although both teams secured last-eight spots.
The Blues were without star centres Jamie Roberts and Gavin Henson, as Roberts continued his recovery from a knee injury and Gavin Evans partnered Casey Laulala in midfield after being preferred to Henson.
On the run: Cardiff's Alex Cuthbert breaks away to score his second try
And a stomach bug meant hooker Rhys Thomas was a late withdrawal, being replaced by Ryan Tyrell, with Paris-based Racing including several international stars despite having already been eliminated from quarter-final contention.
Racing struck first when Wisniewski landed a long-range penalty, but the Blues responded immediately thanks to a defensive blunder by South African World Cup winner Steyn.
Steyn took far too long trying to clear the ball from inside his 22, and Williams charged it down before gathering a kind bounce and touching down.
Halfpenny converted, only for Wisniewski to kick his second penalty, this time from just 25 metres out, then Halfpenny continued an early scoring burst with a penalty that made it 10-6.
Any thoughts that Racing had arrived in Wales merely to make up the numbers were dispelled midway through a lively opening period as Cardiff fell behind.
Teamwork: Gavin Evans (centre) of Cardiff offloads to Michael Paterson
The visitors, eager to move possession wide at every opportunity, sliced through the Blues' defence after Bobo's one-handed pass created space, and Descons sent Matavesi over.
Although Wisniewski missed the conversion, he soon completed his penalty hat-trick before injury forced him off and he was replaced by Juan Imhoff.
Halfpenny's second successful penalty cut the gap to a point, but Racing were good value for their advantage until they gifted their opponents a second try through more sloppy defensive work.
Halfpenny ghosted past Steyn, then his fellow Racing centre Fabrice Estebanez missed an easy tackle on Cuthbert, who touched down despite not being called back by referee Andrew Small for a knock-on.
It was ultimately a fortuitous score for the Blues, but Halfpenny rubbed salt into Racing's wounds by kicking the touchline conversion attempt that opened up a 20-14 lead.
Charge: Benjamin Salemane Sa Metro powers through the Cardiff defence
But just when the Blues needed to close things up, they suffered a double blow when Bobo rounded off an impressive move for Racing's second try – converted by Descons – before a forlorn-looking Jenkins limped off.
And the penalty-fest continued as Halfpenny and Steyn swapped kicks, ending a first 40 minutes that saw the lead change hands six times and Racing pinching a 24-23 lead.
The Blues took less than two minutes to go back in front, prospering when Imhoff was guilty of defensive hesitancy, and Cuthbert gathered before sprinting over in the corner.
Halfpenny's conversion took the Blues up to 30 points, and it was a lead they managed to retain, even though their performance level looked well short of what will be required to challenge Leinster in early April.
Halfpenny, who missed only one kick from nine attempts, sealed the deal with a late strike, yet Cardiff finished second in Pool Two pile after four-try Edinburgh beat London Irish.