Friday night saw Cardiff Blues return to winning ways in Treviso as a late Willis Halaholo try, as well as 19 points from the boot of Steven Shingler, sealed a first victory in five attempts at the Stadio Monigo.
It certainly was not a classic and there is still much work to be done to return to the heights of the opening month of the season, but any win on the road is a good one, especially for a Cardiff side out in Italy, and stopping the recent losing streak is very important psychologically for the team.
Danny Wilson was boosted by the releasing of seven players from the Team Wales setup with six of them brought into the starting XV including, flankers Ellis Jenkins and Sam Warburton, as the team went from no natural 7s to two of them. There was also two new faces in the team as young Rhun Williams made his debut on the wing, and Willis Halaholo joined Rey Lee-Lo in the midfield.
The game started in a very positive manner from a Cardiff point of view as we put Treviso under early pressure and dominated possession. Matthew Morgan was particularly prevalent on the counter-attach, encouraging to see after a somewhat under par performance against Llanelli last week.
It would be the full-back’s break that helped kick start the attack that lead to the first score as he wandered through a big hole in the Treviso defence and into the secondary defence. Some quick ball phases eventually gave Ellis Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Sam Warburton the chance to shift possession wide to debutant Rhun Williams who went down the touchline, stepped off his left foot and over for a score after six minutes.
Steve Shingler kicked the conversion but soon it was another of his kicks that would allow Treviso to hit back as he put a bomb up from the Cardiff 22. None of his team-mates could got under the high ball and there was some slight misfortune as the bounce fell right into Treviso winger Michael Tagicakibau’s hands.
He was only just stopped before the line but there was a slight inevitability of a score coming as the sizeable Treviso pack battered our fringe defence and eventually it was second row Dean Budd who rolled over the line. Ian McKinley brought the scores level and five minutes later he was back on the tee for another conversion.
Treviso moved the ball quickly and Cardiff’s defence on the back foot seemed to crumble. The line was manipulated into having three tight-five forwards guarding the open side and the hosts swooped. Quick hands and an offload released winger Angelo Esposito who drew Shingler and allowed Alberto Sgarbi the glory.
Why was Shingler the last man to be bypassed? Well this is one of the issues with the defence at the moment as there seems, quite rightly on recent performances, to be a deep mistrust of Matthew Morgan’s tackling capability from full-back. As a result the fly-half and/or the wingers are sitting deeper and leaving gaps in their place.
After conceding two tries in five minutes, a recurring theme in recent weeks, we kept in touch with two Shingler penalties, including one beauty from halfway, but questions marks hung over the defence as it was tested by Treviso. They worked back into the redzone, before this time taking advantage of a lack of work rate from Cardiff.
The overlap developed as nobody moved around a breakdown to cover the blindside, Rey Lee-Lo was forced to rush out of the line but was too late as Tagicakibau crossed in the corner. Three tries for 20 minutes putting Cardiff right on the back foot.
Another Shingler penalty was means for half-time hope, but it was going to take a rocket from the coaches at half-time to avoid a fifth straight away loss to Treviso. With the scores at 21-16 the game was tipped in the home side’s favour, but not by much.
Five minutes into the second half disaster struck though as Treviso returned straight to our five metre line. One held up attempt didn’t stop the home side who seemed like they would score from the fringes again, only for Cardiff to lose concentration of the wider game and allow McKinley an easy chip over the top to a wide open Braam Steyn. Bonus point sewn up and four conversions to boot all inside fifty minutes.
Cardiff needed an immediate reply and in this game of quick responses they got it as the pendulum swung in their favour once again. It was pleasing to see the early second half try not knocking the players off course and they started putting together some much improved attacking phases orchestrated by Shingler with Lee-Lo and Halaholo stepping up in midfield.
There was also impressive link play from flankers Warburton and Jenkins, the former releasing Rhun Williams to make ground down the left, before the latter’s offload found Macauley Cook with the simple job of jogging over the line after the ball was whipped from one touch line to the other.
No conversion on this occasion but Shingler nudged us closer to the lead with a penalty as the hour marked approached, and the changes being rung, particularly in the pack, started to pay dividends as fresh legs gave the attackers new impetus. Although there was a further missed penalty it still didn’t knock us off course and soon we were back in possession in Treviso territory.
The back line was by now playing with much more freedom and with the confidence to attack deeper from the line with more pace, which resulted in a one-on-one situation for new signing Willis Halaholo in midfield. He stood up his man before outpacing him and producing a wicked step off his left foot to completely bamboozle the Italian full-back and make it a 100% record for Cardiff debutants scoring on their debuts.
A well-taken touchline conversion from Shingler put us three points ahead, holding the lead for the first time since the 12th minute. With now a quarter of an hour to go we were again pinned back on our line by the home side and it seemed like all of our hard work to get our noses back in front would be undone.
However, the undoubted highlight of the night even above the tries, occurred in this defensive set as, with Treviso bearing down on the line yet again and Cardiff seemingly powerless to stop them it came to 19 year old Rhun Williams coming off his wing, getting a good hit on the opposition ball carrier, holding him up and securing the turnover.
A magnificent piece of play that really set the tone for the last 10 minutes of the match which saw Shingler kick his 19th point of the afternoon to stretch the lead just a bit further and the team manage the end of the game safely to secure a first win in Treviso since March 2012.
Overall it wasn’t great, let’s be honest. However, I was left with a weirdly positive feeling on the basis that in previous years we definitely would have lost that game. I was pleased with the fight shown by the team, especially when we conceded straight after half-time, and on the back of two rather passion-less derby wins.
There’s much work to do defensively where we appeared to have slipped into a worrying trend of having absolutely no shape. Leaders need to step up, particularly in the backs, and I think as Halaholo settles into the midfield alongside Lee-Lo that will happen. He already looks very exciting with ball in hand.
After a few weeks of upheaval following a very settled 23 being used during September it seems the team is taking some time just to re-adjust as a wider playing squad. With two weeks of Anglo-Welsh Cup action now it will be interesting to see how Danny Wilson goes with the strength of the side.
Will he play stronger sides for an element of continuity and to allow partnerships to grow, or will he allow the senior players two weeks to train hard elsewhere and leave the Anglo-Welsh to the younger players? Only the coaching staff know, but it’s important that the players don’t get carried away with one win and get stuck into plenty of hard work whatever the next few weeks entails for them. Come on Cardiff!!!