For the opening of September’s review blog I opened with a quote from Danny Wilson about how if someone had offered him the chance to be four from four after the opening month of the season he’d have ‘bitten their hand off’. What a difference four weeks make!
After those dreamy days of going unbeaten all month there has certainly been a bump down to Earth in October as we have failed to win a single Pro12 game and only bagged two wins in the European Challenge Cup thanks to fairly weak opposition amid lacklustre performances. It’s been a month of frustration to say the least, with players, referees, league schedulers and the WRU all receiving the Cardiff wrath at one point or another.
On The Pitch
Following those four wins on the bounce the first challenge of October came with the visit of Leinster on the first Friday of the month. Another 8,000+ attendance packed into CAP expectant of an exciting game, but were unfortunately met with tough Irish opposition, but not the kind we expected, as Dudley Phillips’ refereeing performance drew criticism from all quarters, not least from me!
Analysis: Was the refereeing that bad? Well, yes: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/10/05/analysis-was-the-refereeing-that-bad/
It seemed like we might continue with our winning run as 13 first half points from Gareth Anscombe, including a wonderful solo try, with a little bit of help from a Gethin Jenkins block, saw us leading by 10 points at the break. However, Dudders wasn’t letting us get off that easily.
A Rhys Ruddock try for Leinster looked very much like a double movement, confirmed by replays, and the referee decided against going to the TMO to check, while a number of questionable decisions at the breakdown did not assist out attempts to get our noses back in front. Of course we didn’t help ourselves as Josh Navidi picked up a poor yellow card, and eventually fell to a 13-16 loss.
Cardiff 13-16 Leinster: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/10/04/cardiff-13-16-leinster/
At this stage there still wasn’t a huge amount to worry about though, it was still a respectable performance and a losing bonus point with a chance to get back on track in the best way possible, with an away derby win at Ospreys. That was a step too far though and the wheels fell off our early season run in spectacular style.
Seven tries were shipped at the Liberty in a quite shockingly bad defensive display which left Danny Wilson describing the Cardiff players as being ‘shell shocked’. Particularly up front they could not deal with Ospreys intensity or physicality and were almost literally blown away as the home side secured a bonus point in 18 first half minutes, going 27-10 up by the break.
Tries from Kris Dacey, Rey Lee-Lo and Tom James, and some points off Anscombe’s boot, at least got us across the 20 point mark, but the final scoreline of 46-24 was still embarrassing quite frankly. The record is now 11 straight defeats against Ospreys and that is not looking like ending any time soon.
Ospreys 46-24 Cardiff: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/10/09/ospreys-46-24-cardiff/
Fortunately the European Challenge Cup provided a somewhat welcome distraction after that hammering at the Liberty, and a juicy hop across the Severn Bridge to take on Bristol awaited. With a few changes to the XV there was a change of direction from Danny Wilson who, after this month, I get the feeling is still unsure on exactly how to best use the new found squad depth.
On this occasion it worked well as a bonus point performance, thanks to tries from Josh Turnbull, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo and Tom James, as Cardiff swept aside a very lacklustre looking Bristol outfit. Certainly a handy confidence booster although yellow cards for Matthew Morgan and Dan Fish were met with some worry about squad discipline.
Bristol 20-33 Cardiff: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/10/21/bristol-20-33-cardiff/
A confidence booster for sure and when Section Paloise came to town for the second pool game with a typically weakened French team for the Challenge Cup there was a sense that a big win was on the cards. Further changes were made to the XV as Wilson rested a number of frontline players but it was still a team with enough strength for the win.
The game was the story of Cory Allen who, after a decidedly dodgy start to the season, came up with a brace of tries which along with a Blaine Scully score and 12 Steve Shingler points got us across the line. Despite this comfortable win though there was still a feeling that all was not quite right with the Cardiff performances in Europe.
This was festered by the fact that Pau were probably even worse than Bristol in terms of opposition faced, yet Cardiff were unable to secure the bonus point. This was mainly due to the fact that for the last 10 minutes or so of the game we decided to fiercely defend our line and allowed the away side to retain possession, leaving no opportunity to go hunting for the fourth try up the other end of the pitch.
Cardiff 27-12 Pau: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/10/23/cardiff-27-12-pau/
Post-match the word from the camp was that they were very happy with that period of defence and learnt a lot from it, which is absolutely fine if that level of work was kept up. However, 10 minutes into Llanelli’s visit to CAP just a week later to finish off the month, Cardiff were two tries down and staring down the barrel of another defeat on the return to Pro12 action.
Tom James’ reply gave a faint hope but when Scarlets secured the bonus point try just 30 seconds into the second half the game was over as a contest. Blaine Scully’s superman style try was spectacular yet in vein as a second Welsh derby defeat of the month confined Cardiff to the bottom half of the league table as October turned to November.
Cardiff 15-26 Llanelli: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/10/30/cardiff-15-26-llanelli/
Another point to be made from the match was, just as the month began, refereeing problems dominated the 80 minutes. Lloyd Linton of Scotland, refereeing just his 15th Pro12 match ever, struggled to command control over any area of the game with Cardiff feeling aggrieved not to receive a penalty try from a period of scrum domination in the first half, and Llanelli’s Aaron Shingler finding himself on the end of the worst decision I think I’ve ever seen to be sin binned as he was tackled off the ball.
A month of frustrating refereeing, frustrating defensive performances and frustrating lack of bonus points overall leaves me feeling, well, frustrated really! From four Pro12 wins to three losses is a real kick in the teeth, although finishing the opening two rounds of the European Challenge Cup as pool leaders is a positive to cling onto.
Off The Pitch
If there were plenty of frustrations on the field there was more a feeling of exasperation off it during October, mainly at the end of the month, as the Welsh derbies of the final weekend threw up a cock-up in the Pro12 fixture scheduling.
Essentially the Welsh internationals named in the Team Wales squad for November’s internationals were, with four exceptions, prevented from playing in the derbies by the WRU. This was under the Rugby Services Agreement (RSA) signed by the four professional clubs and the WRU, which allows the national team to play an additional Autumn game and have access to players 13 days before the game.
With this year’s extra game being played on the 5th November against Australia it meant the players would be in Wales camp in the last week of October rather than playing in the derbies. Of course there was uproar as it was felt the WRU was devaluing the professional clubs in their biggest games of the year, but was it really their fault?
The draft fixtures were sent out to all four clubs and their umbrella organisation, Pro Rugby Wales, and still the derbies that clashed with the Autumn internationals, and were scheduled after them, were not spotted. Overall conclusion, it’s an all-round cock-up and hopefully lessons have been learned.
Out of the boardrooms filled with old men administrators and into the treatment room at The Vale for an injury check up. Kirby Myhill, Dan Fish and Alex Cuthbert have all returned to action following injuries last month, although Fish was stretchered off against Llanelli with a potentially serious looking ankle injury. No news as yet regarding that.
George Earle limped off with an ankle injury of his own against Leinster at the start of the month but has since returned, while Sam Warburton broke his cheekbone in the same game and is only just ready to play again. Also in the back row we have seen Nick Williams struggling on crutches after picking up an injury at Bristol, while Josh Navidi has been struck down with some kind of neck/head injury and is not yet in a position to pass the return to play protocols.
Finally from the injury list is the news that Lewis Jones has been forced to have knee surgery which will keep him out for at least six months. A big loss to the scrum half ranks, get well soon Lewis!
Away from the negative news and onto better things. Firstly we have seen the exit of two fringe players that have pretty much failed to make any impact under Danny Wilson at Cardiff. Salesi Ma’afu, the Australian international tighthead, was released from his contract to join Gloucester after making just six appearances, totalling 248 minutes, since joining last December.
Tavis Knoyle has also moved onto pastures new after having his contract cancelled to allow the scrum-half to travel the well-trodden path from CAP to Rodney Parade. Newport Gwent Dragons pick up the Wales international after 32 starts in the capital over two seasons but he had not appeared for the first team this season before moving on.
While the two players were on the way out there was three extending their stays at the Arms Park with Kris Dacey, Tomos Williams and Sam Warburton signing new contracts. Hooker Dacey adds to his seven seasons, and over 100 caps, with the club while Tomos Williams signs his first proper senior contract after a number of impressive performances.
Wales captain Sam Warburton is extending his National Dual Contract between the WRU and Cardiff as he aims to head off on the Lions tour of New Zealand next summer before building up to the 2019 World Cup. He has also done an excellent interview with the Guardian stating he’d “prefer to win one trophy with the Blues rather than go to another club and perhaps win a few.” Good on him indeed!
The final off the field news is probably the best news of the month as Willis Halaholo is finally in Cardiff!! After winning the Super Rugby title with Hurricanes and then playing though a New Zealand Provincial season with Waikato he is at The Vale and training with the squad. Rumours he would be involved against Llanelli proved to be untrue, but after recent performances he could well be seen against Treviso to kick off November.
Analysis: #WelcomeWillis – Find out what kind of player we’re getting: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/10/26/analysis-welcomewillis/
Player of the Month
Certainly a tougher one this month as a few below par performances and few real consistent players haven’t resulted in a particularly long shortlist. Tom James bagged three tries again in an attempt to retain the award from September, while Rey Lee-Lo has two tries of his own and looked solid in midfield.
Up front we have seen Josh Turnbull and Macauley Cook turn out some solid performances, but my winner this month is winger Blaine Scully. Fast becoming a real fan favourite amongst the Arms Park faithful the American has really kicked on his game at the start of this season and two tries last month, including the wonderful finish vs Scarlets, has contributed to his winning the award.
It’s not just the tries though, I’ve not seen many players more comfortable under the high ball while Scully has my favourite attribute of them all, a very high workrate. He runs and tackles and carries all game and if there’s anything I ask of the players every game it’s that they put in 100%, Blaine has personified that and wins this month’s award.