Pre-season started in disappointment for Cardiff Blues as a strong opening 30 minutes from Newport saw them secure victory before Danny Wilson’s men even got going. Four tries in that half-hour period for the home side put the game beyond doubt as Cardiff slipped into the habits of last season with a slow start followed by a resurgent second half.
Newport’s tries from Rynard Landman, Elliott Dee, Adam Hughes and Nic Cudd in the first half, as well as T Rhys Thomas in the second gave them the win alongside five conversions and a penalty. In response Cardiff crossed through Lewis Jones in the first half, before Steve Shingler, Josh Navidi and Dan Fish completed the attempted comeback after half-time for a 38-28 scoreline.
As results are not the highest priority on the agenda in pre-season games I won’t go into a full match report, rather pick out some positive and negative points. Obviously the final score is disappointing as losing to your closest rivals always will be, but as I said to the Cardiff fan next to me at Rodney Parade, we got hammered in 2009/10 pre-season before going on to win the Challenge Cup.
Let’s begin, as the game did, with the negatives and the slow start. It’s understandable that there would be some rustiness when it comes to match sharpness after three months off and it was tricky playing against a Newport side that was almost a full starting XV and who had commenced pre-season the week previously against RGC. Having said that the level of performance in the first 30 minutes was unacceptable.
The players were effectively bullied out of the way a number of times as Newport seemed to gain yards with every carry. Tackling low is effective in bringing the player down, but when the ruck is not subsequently contested it allows for quick ball which was our downfall for at least two, probably three of the tries in the first half-hour. This quick carrying then put the home side on the front foot far too often.
This leads me onto the second negative which was our lack of an openside flanker. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive Josh Navidi fan, but at this stage I do feel he’s a better number 8 or blindside than he is an openside and requires an Ellis Jenkins or a Sam Warburton in the team with him for the majority of the breakdown work as Navidi only managed one turnover in the roughly 70 minutes of game time he had.
The final piece of defensive negative was the lack of line speed and the exceedingly narrow setup adopted. In context, everytime Cardiff were in possession Kingsley Jones shouted ‘line speed’ from his gantry viewpoint. Meanwhile our defence seemed happier to stay deeper in a line with the outside players looking more likely to blitz and cut of any wide channels. Unfortunately this meant that either Newport made ground tucking it up the jumper and carrying, or via throwing the long pass out wide.
Away from the open play defence there were negatives to be found in the set piece as Newport scored twice from driving mauls. I’m sure Danny Wilson will have been particularly upset by this as he prides himself on his maul setup, but it may be a case of over-coaching as the players seemed too concerned with the maul being spun around to allow a breakaway off the back that they forgot to defend the simple shove through the middle.
In the line-out in the first half Matthew Rees’ throwing was all over the place and lost us possession at least twice before going off at half-time, while from the restarts Jarrod Evans’ lack of ability to get any height on the drop-kicks meant any chance of recovering possession was lost immediately. Both of these issues were corrected though by the introductions of Ethan Lewis and Steve Shingler at the beginning of the second half.
Onto attacking and the negatives came in two forms. The first of these was a problem at the start of the game and goes back to rustiness as hand speed was non-existent meaning we were so easy to defend against. Newport’s defence came storming up as per Kingsley’s instructions and stopped us getting any attacking width at all. With a three-quarter line of Jarrod Evans, Garyn Smith and Harri Millard there were no ball carriers and as such yards were hard to come by.
It wasn’t until the second half that the ball started to be moved about in the fashion of last season’s successful ending but players lacked the composure to be able to capitalise on this. A number of handling errors, too many kicks from good positions and some generally poor decision making meant a number of promising attacking chances came and went, and by the end of the game I was left with no memory of one clean Cardiff line break. Plenty for new backs coach Matt Sherratt to work on.
Anyway, it wasn’t all doom and gloom on Friday night in Newport, for once, and there were plenty of positives to take back to Cardiff and civilisation. Picking out some individual performances to start with, I thought James Sheekey looked good on his first outing at this level. Despite only turning 22 next month he is a sizeable player at 6’5″ and 18st which he used to good effect carrying well and looking steady under the high ball.
I thought Lewis Jones had a solid game, desperately trying to inject some pace into a struggling first half attack with quick ball from the ruck and picking up a deserved try. Garyn Smith did well in his first real test wearing the number 12 jersey, while Blaine Scully also deserves a mention for an industrious performance with little to no service. Dan Fish though was the clear Cardiff man of the match and finished the game by scoring the pick of the tries.
Steven Shingler was the man who changed the game in the second half as his dynamic running and excellent passing from 10 opened up spaces out wide. He wasn’t afraid to change the direction of the attack and linked up well with Tomos Williams who looked sharp at scrum-half. Shingler will certainly provide excellent back-up to Gareth Anscombe and hopefully help develop young Jarrod Evans who looked a bit nervous and out of shape as he stood static and too deep at first receiver.
Team-wise there were positives to be found in the scrum, which was largely dominant over a Newport front row made up almost entirely of former Cardiff players. Salesi Ma’afu particularly looked good against Thomas Davies in the first half although is still too unfit to have an impact on open play. The line-out in the second half was solid under Ethan Lewis’ guidance, although attacking mauls didn’t get a proper work out.
Generally in open play the ball was moved quicker in the second half and although there was the handling errors mentioned above, when we did manage to move possession wide space was found. For example Fish’s try was easy after Shingler found a yard on the left wing and put a perfectly weighted grubber in behind.
So overall there were good and bad points but the strapline of Friday night is ‘work to be done’ from a Cardiff point of view. Next weekend’s encounter with Bristol at the Arms Park will be intriguing as many of the summer international players are expected to return after a week of righting the Newport wrongs. The newly promoted Aviva Premiership will present a much tougher challenge and it would be nice to get a result to go into the season with. Come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff v Bristol
Cardiff Arms Park
Saturday 20th August, 15:00
Tickets here, also included Cardiff RFC v Taunton, 12:00