Cardiff Blues completed their pre-season campaign with a win over Bristol at the Arms Park in a much improved performance after last week’s loss to Newport. With plenty of internationals yet to return as well it gives Danny Wilson some interesting selection headaches before the Pro12 season starts with Edinburgh at home in two weeks.
There were 14 changes made to the side with only Macauley Cook retaining his place in the starting XV. Debuts were handed to Matthew Morgan, Nick Williams, George Earle, Kirby Myhill and Rhys Gill, while internationals Rey Lee-Lo, Ellis Jenkins and Kris Dacey returned alongside a fit-again Alex Cuthbert and Wales U20 tighthead Dillon Lewis.
Bristol arrived over the bridge with a long injury list but still managed to include Rhodri and Jordan Williams, Jack Lam, Soane Tongaʻuiha, Jordan Crane and former Cardiff player Gavin Henson. With the sides drawn against each other in the Challenge Cup pool stages this season it was a good chance to get a win ahead of the campaign and a little psychological boost before our European meetings.
The game was a back and for affair with Cardiff making the early running thanks to Tom James’ first try of the season after an Alex Cuthbert break. Henson responded with a penalty for Bristol but soon our half-backs combined with Tomos Williams’ tap penalty and pass setting up Steve Shingler for his second try in as many games. The away side finished the first half the stronger however as Tom Varndell flew down the left wing leaving Cuthbert in his wake with a groin injury.
Substitutions ruined any hope of an exciting second half contest to follow the first as the game became a disjointed affair, only Varndell again creating anything through his pace as Cardiff squandered scoring opportunities with ball in hand and off the tee. It wasn’t until the 70th minute when Dan Fish released Aled Summerhill to score that the game began to wind down and when Blaine Scully grabbed a try the win was sown up.
Not even a Tavis Knoyle howler could ruin the afternoon as he managed to completely fluff kicking a loose ball into touch to end the game and allow Ben Mosses over for a try. 25-24 final score and a confidence boosting victory heading into the last two weeks of pre-season before the Pro12 returns.
There were vast improvements from the performance against Newport, mainly in attack where we returned to last season’s form of moving the ball wide and at speed. Particularly in the first half the impact of Alex Cuthbert and Tom James on the wings with Matthew Morgan at full-back we looked dangerous each time we had the ball. Factor in a centre partnership of Rey Lee-Lo and Cory Allen that is still in it’s early stages and we have the makings of a real high quality back line.
The only negative aspect of the attacking game were the breakdowns where at least four times in the first half alone we gave up possession due to players going into the tackle isolated, or Bristol defenders not being able to be moved from over the ball. It’s not a criticism of any forwards not making it to the tackle area quick enough, it’s a requirement for better decision making from those with ball in hand.
Defensively the general shape and speed of the line was a step up from Rodney Parade, although on a few occasions, for both of Varndell’s tries for example, it was one-on-one tackling that let us down. A tendecy of particularly the backs to go high on the contact is a slight concern and will need to be addressed as we do somewhat sacrifice strength in the back line for attacking speed.
The set piece looked solid in the first half, with the first individual credit going to Kirby Myhill who had a strong debut (comments on Twitter aside) particularly in his lineout throwing. Behind him both George Earle and Cam Dolan formed a steady second row pairing while Macauley Cook again had an exceedingly solid game.
Into the backs and Tomos Williams looked very sharp at scrum-half with a decent understanding developing between him and Steve Shingler. Rey Lee-Lo carried on his form from the end of last season while Tom James and Matthew Morgan are an extremely potent counter-attacking threat.
In terms of man-of-the-match it is a toss up between Nick Williams and Steve Shingler for me, with Williams having a very effective debut. He is an absolute mountain of man and doesn’t tackle people so much as bully them. At one point he went counter-rucking at full speed and just left a trail of destruction in his wake, and with this power he possesses a quick pair of hands. If he can be managed correctly and stay fit the number eight will be a huge asset.
However, my choice for MotM is Shingler. He’s only played just over 80 minutes worth of rugby but he already looks a shrewd acquisition. I don’t think I was alone in thinking he would mainly be used at full-back or even centre but he is the season-long fly-half we have been crying out for.
Planted at first receiver he always seems to have a yard of space to pick out the pass and isn’t afraid to create things for himself, with two tries in as many games already to his name. Hopefully he can be the backbone to the side during the international window that we’ve lacked for so long.
So pre-season is over and done with, overall a positive feeling but with some points to work on. Edinburgh at home is two weeks away so plenty of time to right any wrongs and welcome back the internationals who weren’t quite fit enough for pre-season. The start of the season will be massive after such a dreadful losing streak last September to November, but I’m excited for what lies ahead. Come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff v Edinburgh
Saturday 3rd September
Cardiff Arms Park, 19:35 kick-off
Tickets available here
Live on S4C