As the end of October rolled around and we managed to get out of Ireland after four largely disappointing performances we had the pleasure of a trip to Italy to look forward to. Generally Italy is the happy hunting ground for all 10 of the Pro12 teams that aren’t Italian so I think it’s fair to say there isn’t a much better fixture to have on the back of four straight defeats.
Things did not go well in Ireland: https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/category/season-review/going-downhill/
It was Zebre we would face on this trip which, after battering them 61-13 just five games previously while scoring a Cardiff Blues record number of tries, was not a bad game to get a confidence booster from. The team was aided by the return of Lloyd Williams from the World Cup, Tom James from injury and the arrival of new signing Blaine Scully. It really should have been a repeat of the opening game but it was not to be as within five minutes the home side scored a try.
Starting immediately on the back foot spelled disaster and by the time the final whistle went we were 26-15 down. A real kick in the teeth to suffer our first defeat away to Zebre and a real signal of how confidence has hit absolute rock bottom. The team was playing no expansive rugby to get danger men James, Scully and Fish involved, while the defence often looked at sixes and sevens.
To be four points down with 20 minutes to go, get 10 of those minutes against 14 men, and not come out with anything is inexcusable. Early questions were being asked of Danny Wilson’s regime amid the lack of desire seemingly shown by a number of players used in the squad and no signs of any of the playing issues being addressed.
Fortunately a period of restbite from travelling was around the corner as with the World Cup over Cardiff Arms Park was no longer a fan zone and able to host Glasgow to start November. The reigning champions were welcoming a large number of Scottish internationals back into their side, but similarly Danny Wilson made seven changes to the starting XV as Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Lloyd Williams, Gethin Jenkins, Kris Dacey and Sam Warburton all made their first starts following World Cup duty, and Gavin Evans had recovered from injury.
The fresh blood certainly made a difference as only a second half Glaswegian comeback saw 17-8 and 23-15 leads slip to 30-35 final score thanks to a last minute penalty try from a deliberate Stuart Hogg knock on. It was a much improved performance overall as for the first time since Zebre at home two months previously, we spent more of the 80 minutes playing well than playing poorly. The speed of Lloyd at 9 setting up a basis to attack off was the key, everything else works from that.
Week 8 of the Pro12 came along as November drew to a close and the first Welsh derby came with it as we drove West to the Ospreys. Injuries to Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe thrust academy fly-half Jarrod Evans into the 10 shirt and it was an assured debut from the youngster. Around him the side was becoming more settled under Wilson which was an encouragement after the chopping and changing on the Irish tour.
Dreadful weather at the Liberty Stadium hindered a real chance to put an end to the six game league losing run against a similarly struggling Ospreys. With the score just 3-0 to us at half-time it was in the end an Alun Wyn Jones score and the boot of Sam Davies that gave the Swansea side a 13-7 win. That left us languishing in 9th just a point ahead of Zebre and only above Newport on points difference.
A month of slight improvements and confidence boosting player returns saw the screw turning, albeit slowly. 10 points from a possible 40 in the opening three months of the season, plus a seven game losing streak was far from what was wanted, but the little signs of encouragement was there. The defence was tightening and the ball was being shifted much quicker to get the back line moving.
The signs of improvement were encouraging but the win was so elusive as we entered December. However, brighter things were soon to come in the season to be jolly….