Cardiff fell to a second defeat in a week as they were narrowly beaten by Leinster in dreadful conditions at the Arms Park. With the wind howling down the pitch from the River Taff end, it was a very well managed first half from Cardiff as we went in just 3-6 down at half-time. However, an entire lack of attacking ability let us down in the second period, and a moment of poor defending and Leinster opportunism gave Isa Nacewa the winning try.
The Blues were boosted by the return of Team Wales squad members Josh Turnbull, Lloyd Williams, Gareth Anscombe and Alex Cuthbert into the starting XV, giving us a very strong looking side to take on Pro12 high-flyers Leinster, who were also aided by Six Nations players in their week off. The Dublin side were looking to make it 10 wins in a row against us and arrived confident of a win, coming off the back of a 52-0 battering of Zebre.
We started with the wind firmly in our faces, and a sign of things to come was the sight of Kristian Dacey and Manoa Vosawai leading the short charges up field in the first few minutes. A penalty was secured and we were 3-0 up thanks to Gareth Anscombe. However, another sign of things to come came a few minutes later as Leinster steam rollered our scrum, and it was back to level pegging thanks to Ian Madigan.
The game was narrow and forward oriented, with a majority of the rugby being played in our half, but the home forwards going through a lot of phases with ball in hand. Madigan had a chance to put his team in front but his kick cannoned off the post and into Blaine Scully’s grateful arms. The wind strength was proven just after as Lloyd Williams’ box kick went up and came straight back to him.
Finally, the game opened up slightly, and two pieces of Cardiff brilliance saved us a try and then almost scored one. Firstly, Leinster finally got some front foot ball, and with our defence rushing up, Madigan put in a beautiful grubber out to Fergus McFadden in the corner. He looked for all the World like he’d just pick up and score but a sickening yet brilliant tackle/collision from Rhys Patchell held him short, and then forced the knock-on as he reached for the line.
This was followed by Cardiff looking to break out from our own 22 through Alex Cuthbert who, with a point to prove, broke a tackle and headed up field, before producing a lovely offload to Patchell. The full-back took the ball on to Leinster’s half, but probably passed too early and left Lloyd with a lot to do. He was in the end stopped by a big hit from McFadden, which saw the Irishman receive a slightly harsh yellow card.
Many times this season I’ve criticised the team for not capitalising when a man up on the opposition, but with a gale force wind in our faces, all we had to do was stop Leinster scoring and it was mission accomplished. Strong defence and clever possession play of narrow pick-and-go drives meant we saw out the remainder of the half well. Only a Madigan penalty from the last kick of the first period made it 3-6.
At this point I’m sure we were all quietly confident, and that increased when Anscombe levelled the scores early on in the second half, but then the wheels began falling off. First, our real danger man Cory Allen was stretchered off with an ankle injury from a fairly innocuous passage of play. With Allen gone it become obvious very quickly that our backs were suffering from ‘Paul John syndrome’ once again. Also known as ‘I don’t have a clue what we have to do in attack-itis’.
With the scrum going backwards at a rate of knots, allowing Madigan to put Leinster back into the lead, Danny Wilson hauled the three front row starters off after 50 minutes, and also introduced Dan Fish. Could this be the moment we started looking exciting in attack? Well, no. In fact we allowed the away side to have the ball, left the blindside completely open from a ruck, and watched back rower Jack Conan head off up the pitch and feed his captain Isa Nacewa to score a try. Brilliant.
Now, I can’t fault the team for effort on the back of that try, but for the third week running we looked totally loss in attack. Yes the weather was dreadful and didn’t lend itself to expansive play, but these lads are professional rugby players. Surely they are capable of passing and catching in the wind and rain? Especially when the wind is at their backs? Yet when the ball did go wide, the backs looked like rabbits in the headlights. A complete lack of any patterns of play, and confidence in themselves to play rugby, lead to the disaster that we witnessed once again. I don’t blame the players though, I purely blame Paul John for his clear lack of coaching.
The one big positive from the afternoon was Tomos Williams, aided by his moustache, who provided a change of speed in attack. Backed up by the ever reliable Tom James, we got some front foot ball, drew a penalty that saw Jordi Murphy take 10 minutes in the sin bin, and a line out in the corner. A few botched attempts later we had driven over through Josh Navidi. Three substitutes changing the game, so at least the bench worked well.
Patchell kicked an impressive conversion, the second good thing he did in an otherwise poor performance, particularly in attack from 10 where his decision making was very off at times. The tendency to kick everything the main frustration. Anyway, a point in it and we managed to recover the ball 15 seconds from time. Guess what though, we stuffed it up! A rushed set up gave the pedestrian Patchell no chance to take 10 minutes to kick a drop goal, and then we knocked it on in contact.
So, a loss it was and we got off to a terrible start in our run of tough games through the upcoming month. In most circumstances a loss by a point against Leinster wouldn’t be a disastrous result, but I can’t shake a feeling of annoyance this week. It feels like the start of the season again when some parts of the performance, defence and forwards on this occasion, were very positive. However, the attack is just not up to scratch. In fact, it’s the complete opposite to the start of the season when we could score for fun but couldn’t defend.
We have the players capable of producing an all-round performance, we saw that over Christmas, but a lack of consistency has hindered us. I do blame the coaching, and attack coach Paul John must take a lot of flack, as Graham Steadman did early on this season. Obviously he’s leaving at the end of the season to become ‘skills coach’ and go to University, and I’ll reiterate the point that I can’t wait for Bristol attack guru Matt Sherratt to arrive. He has a very big job. Onwards to Ulster at home next week though, come on Cardiff!!