Cardiff Blues went down to a second Welsh derby defeat of the month at home to Llanelli on Friday night, as the early season form of September seemed a distant memory amongst a plethora of simple handling errors and poor defence.
Danny Wilson had been forced into a number of changes due to international call-ups depriving the squad of seven players. Rhys Gill was released by the club to start at loosehead, while George Earle returned from injury at lock with Josh Turnbull switching to 7 and Cam Dolan coming in at full-back. In the backs Rey Lee-Lo was selected alongside Cory Allen at centre, and Matthew Morgan was preferred at full-back.
Scarlets were also missing seven of their Wales internationals after a fixture clash and the terms of the Rugby Services Agreement, signed by the four professional clubs and the Welsh Rugby Union, prevented those in the national team being released back to their sides for this weekend’s Welsh derbies.
The visitors started the stronger of the sides, immediately pinning Cardiff back in our half with the Rhys Patchell, on his return to CAP, kicking nicely out of hand. An attempted cross kick was just pushed into touch for a desperately leaping Matthew Morgan before DTH Van Der Merwe could get there.
From the resulting lineout the Cardiff forwards managed to bring down the Llanelli driving maul, but five phases of quick ball later they managed to isolate scrum half Tomos Williams in the fringe defence and Aaron Shingler simply ran over him to reach and score. Patchell added the extras to make it 7-0 after seven minutes.
Things went from bad to worse straight from the kick-off as Blaine Scully’s tap back went straight to Steff Evans who carried up to halfway. Macauley Cook was unfortunate to be penalised for a high tackle and from the lineout David Bulbring took the ball up, followed by DTH, who promptly split the Cardiff defence before offloading to scrum half Jonathan Evans for the second score in as many minutes.
Finally, after 10 minutes, Cardiff managed to keep hold of possession for more than two phases and gain some territory as Cam Dolan made a nice half break before Rey Lee-Lo took the ball deep into Llanelli’s 22. With the attack looking promising Cory Allen came on a crash ball angle to try and break the line but couldn’t gather Tomos Williams’ pass.
Fortunately as the away side picked up the loose ball and attempted the counter attack they got far too carried away with an overlap as John Barclay took possession into a three-on-one situation. He threw the pass far too obviously and slowly allowing a well positioned Tom James to intercept easily and jog over from 15 metres out.
The game seemed to pick up in terms of excitement levels over the next ten minutes, albeit lacking in quality, as Llanelli came back at Cardiff only for Hadleigh Parkes to throw away possession straight to Allen. The centre moved the ball wide but as Macauley Cook attacked he was tackled and his offload was also intercepted by DTH. Fortunately there was a covering tackle with Morgan completely bypassed at full-back.
That attack was seen off and some good scrum and phase work have Shingler the opportunity to push Scarlets back with a kick and a mistake from Steff Evans gave a god lineout platform on their 22. Lee-Lo made good yards from the first phase but from phase two Shingler managed to perfectly pick out Aled Thomas who sprinted off upfield before passing the glory to DTH.
A really poor piece of attacking play from the outside half who had a three-on-two overlap outside him but threw completely the wrong pass. That took away any momentum that had been recovered from the slow start and made the game a further uphill struggle.
Having to start again the players started to recover well, dominating possession again in the red zone and going through a number of phases but behind stopped short each time as we lacked a big ball carrier. In the end it was Blaine Scully who took the initiative driving quickly from the back of a ruck but by himself against three defenders he was always likely to be held up.
Scrum to Cardiff and the beginning of a crucial period of play that centred around referee Lloyd Linton of Scotland, refereeing just his 15th ever Pro12 game. With 32:28 on the clock the sequence of play went as such; scrum reset, successful scrum, Dolan held up, scrum penalty Cardiff (wheeling), scrum reset, free-kick Cardiff (pushing early), scrum reset, scrum penalty Cardiff (boring in), scrum reset (Filise/Jones sin binned), scrum reset, scrum penalty Cardiff (wheeling), ‘successful’ scrum.
At 40:22, almost eight minutes later, the ball came out of the last scrum, which also should have been a penalty, and Morgan was held up after dancing around two defenders. Half-time at 7-21 down, as boos rang around the Arms Park at the apparent injustice of not having had a penalty try and seen another Llanelli player heading for 10.
With all that having gone on at the end of the first period, despite no points being gleamed from the attack, you might have hoped the players would take some confidence from dominating possession and territory which, along with a good old ear bashing from the coaches for the multiple errors at the start of the game, might have sparked the team into a good second half.
However, just 36 seconds after the game had re-started, Hadleigh Parkes was scoring Llanelli’s bonus point try after their forwards and driven us back to halfway from the kick-off, Rhys Patchell has wandered through a massive gap in the Cardiff midfield, and offloaded to his captain to ease over the line. Patch somehow managed to miss the conversion but with a 19 point cushion the away side were cruising.
Cardiff were now desperate to get into the game but continuing handling errors, this time from Rhys Gill and Rey Lee-Lo, stunted any attacking flow before a botched five-metre attacking lineout almost allowed DTH away for another try save for Tom James catching up with him and putting the tackle in.
The only thing really continuing to give us hope was Scarlets repeat infringements at the breakdown, which had already allowed Steve Shingler to score a penalty, although many were slightly harsh as our forwards were being repeatedly beaten in every aspect aside from the scrum. Eventually the referee lost patience and binned away flanker Will Boyde.
From the resulting lineout our attacking maul was again easily nullified and the backs could not break through the defensive line. Eventually Shingler tried a little grubber kick through but could not get to the ball first and Patchell was able to clear up the danger.
In fairness to Cardiff they kept knocking on the door of Llanelli’s defence but really struggled to fashion any sort of clear line break, instead relying on penalties being kicked to the corner but the maul attack turned out to be almost entirely ineffective.
In the end it took a moment of brilliance, probably the only impressive piece of Cardiff play all game, from American winger Blaine Scully. From the back of another dominant scrum Lloyd Williams utilised Jarrod Evans, on at fly-half, who floated a pass out to Scully. The pass wasn’t spot on and required a bounce to sit up for the winger but he accelerated into the two yards of space he had before launching himself Superman-style to touch down in the corner.
A quite magnificent finish, in fact I think you’d be pushed to find a better one at CAP, well deserving of the USA chants ringing around the terraces. Shingler missed the conversion but at least it brought us to within a score of a losing bonus point and didn’t entirely waste a 10-minute period of having an extra man.
It seemed like the momentum might take us for another score to really set up an interesting finish, as from the kick-off Llanelli infringed again on the floor allowing us to kick our way into the opposition half. Off the top of the lineout Jarrod Evans found Shingler running a great line from 12 for an actual clear line break. He was brought down about five metres out but somehow James Davies, in the most obviously illegal move, to turn the ball over. His cheeky grin said it all.
With 10 minutes to go it seemed like the rugby Gods may have switched to our side. Steve Shingler tried to knock a grubber kick through but it was blocked by brother Aaron who went to chase after it. As it looked like he may dive on it Steve tackled Aaron without the ball but, as Steff Hughes hacked the ball on with a clear run to the line, referee Linton pulled the game back, awarding a penalty to Cardiff and binning Aaron. An incredible decision, but a chance at last.
That faint hope lasted for all of 10 seconds as Jarrod Evans managed to miss touch by about 10 yards from the resulting kick and the ball was back in Scarlet hands. Evans will be a top outside half in the future and looked very good coming off the bench with ball in hand here, but this was an absolute howler he’ll want to forget in a hurry.
The job was also made harder a minute later when the main man himself, Dan Fish, went down with a potentially serious looking leg/ankle injury. Hoping for a speedy recovery for the Fish. With only one substitute left we were forced to bring on flanker Shane Lewis-Hughes to make his debut with Cam Dolan hanging around on the wing.
The last 10 minutes were of Cardiff attempting to launch attacks from deep but getting nowhere, while Llanelli managed the game very cleverly when in possession and wound the clock down until they were able to kick the ball out for a comfortable 26-15 bonus point win, and a very well deserved one at that.
Cardiff were just not up to the races in almost every area of the pitch. Despite Danny Wilson’s claim of being ‘shell shocked’ by Ospreys hammering of us up front clearly weren’t followed up on as, despite having much the heavier pack on paper, we were quite frankly destroyed at the breakdown and were often lucky to pick up penalties when the turnover seemed inevitable.
The lack of forward impact extended to carrying which was pretty much the root of all our problems as the ball carriers provided plenty of quick ball but little go-forward ball. This lack of metres gained meant that, although the ball was being moved quickly, it was never in a very potent attacking manner with plenty of lateral running and unimaginative back play.
A statistic of 418 metres made, 27 less than Llanelli, despite having 61% possession puts that lack of penetration into the away defence into perspective. Just 67 of those metres were made by forwards, and resulted in only four line breaks all evening. Overall not good enough.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow for Danny Wilson and his men but after a brilliant opening few weeks to the season we have seen now that the players need to be stepping up to another level to be competitive all year. The challenge is on to see if they can live up to the standards of those first games of the season and I do believe the quality is there.
I’d like to think the players will just be watching clips from that early season form to remind them how the simplicity of their game worked so effortlessly then, in between a bit of catching practice. Hopefully that should also instil that confidence back in the team that seems to have gone missing since September.
On to Treviso away next week and a tough encounter in Italy especially as the Autumn Internationals swing into action and we could be missing 12 players if the worst comes to the worst from call-ups, as well as three on the injury list with Dan Fish, Nick Williams and Josh Navidi out. It could well be the making of the team, and I still have faith in the squad. Come on Cardiff!!!