This week’s analysis focuses on an aspect of Cardiff’s play that, even during the unbeaten month of September, has been a weakness in our armour. The defence issue has been extra prevalent over the last three/four games whereby the forwards have lost the dominance exerted early season, the attack has struggled as a result and then the defence has failed to prop the team up quite seriously.
In terms of a comparison to this time last season we find there’s been essentially no improvement at all. After eight league games this season we have conceded just 10 less points than last year (195 to 205), despite winning four more games and playing two more home games. Somewhat embarrassingly, only the two Italian sides have conceded more points than us so far this season.
When you consider that in the opening eight Pro12 encounters of last season we had played all four Irish provinces away, as well as suffering with a weakened squad due to the World Cup, and the squad generally being of a much higher quality this season, it almost represents a backwards step if anything in the quality of our defence.
So what’s contributed to the poor defensive record? Well for a start, 104 missed tackles in eight games certainly does not help. Of course the players have to take some of the blame for that statistic, but the coaches need to take a share of the responsibility as it is fair to say that there are ways to ensure players have the right mentality for defending and tackling, and are coached the correct technique.
Missed tackles also come from how the defensive system is set up, which in Cardiff’s case has been a major issue, as defence coach Graham Steadman has adopted a very rugby league setup as per his playing background. The immediate midfield, closest to the ruck, is quite often packed with forwards to nullify any threat of opposition forwards or heavier backs running crash ball.
This however creates problems wider in the midfield and into outside backs as they are often left short when split between the open and blind side, while having to cover inside shoulders where the forwards are not mobile enough to drift quickly, and the outside shoulder where all the space is. A few cases in point….
In both circled areas you have six to eight defenders guarding the area about three yards to the open side of the breakdown, not the immediate fringes area it’s key to point out which is another area of weakness in our defensive line. This setup is fine if, from the first picture, the ball goes to either of the four immediate receivers to carry.
However if, as in the second picture, the ball gets moved outside those initial group of defenders then we are in trouble. With the backs on the outside of the forwards exposed they now face a four-on-two situation initially before support comes from the back three, with big gaps inside and outside both defenders.
In full the set-up looks like this and is easily bypassed by the Ospreys like so….
There are eight forwards in that line before you get to the two backs on the outside with the player in the bottom right of the picture in possession looking to the wings…..
The ball gets switched through the hands where Ospreys have an overlap, due to the concentration of players in that inside midfield area creating a very narrow defensive line, and Ben John goes down the touchline to secure victory for our Welsh rivals.
This system of defending is made even worse when you get the outside backs, already often outnumbered, individually blitz to try and make the heroic stop.
On three occasions you get the exposed centres blitzing and causing big gaps to appear when it is not successful. Picture one is Willis Halaholo trying to cut off the player outside the first receiver and leaving a hole on his inside shoulder which isn’t covered as the forwards cannot drift fast enough.
Meanwhile pictures two and three show Rey Lee-Lo rushing the first receiver, who promptly flicks the ball out of the back door for the waiting runner to exploit the area left by the blitzer.
To try and discourage the ball from moving wide to the sparsely defended areas the backs in the defensive line sometimes try to narrow the pitch considerably, creating a kind-of dogleg pattern. So if the attackers want to throw the ball to the wings they are trying to complete the miracle pass. That’s the idea anyway….
Unfortunately there’s big issues with this tactic, with each picture showing evidence of a different problem. Picture one we see Rey Lee-Lo’s shoulders turned outwards as he tries to cover the gap behind the rushing Blaine Scully, leaving a nice gap to run through on his inside shoulder as the forward inside is preoccupied with the ball carrier.
Picture two is Scully and Lee-Lo again as the Samoan engages the ball carrier, the next receiver flicks the ball out to the spare man to score, and picture three also resulted in a try as a lack of awareness meant that the winger on the touchline (out of shot), could just wander in unopposed to collect the fly-half’s kick.
A lack of awareness is a recurring problem alongside these coaching issues as either the players are too focused on what they’re being coached to do, or they are not quite good enough at doing what they are being told. It results in occurrences such as this…
Yes all three are from that dreadful night at the Liberty Stadium, but it goes someway to explaining it at least as the last two pictures result in tries. Obviously the third one doesn’t need explaining, and the first is just poor workrate.
It’s the second that’s interesting as you can see the group of forwards, normally found in that inside midfield area, standing out wider. This would work well to provide a more effective line across the pitch, but on this occasion they leave the inside shoulder totally exposed for Matavesi to run through.
As we know, he runs over Matthew Morgan, amongst others, to get to the line and it’s Nipper who is also somewhat hindering the defence, although not in the way you expect. The coaches seem to be aware that his tackling isn’t strong enough as the full-back, so they seem intent on using the fly-half to cover him and subsequently leave the main defensive line weaker.
I apologise for the amount of annotation on picture one, but what we have is Patchell (with white arms, middle) on the ball. Rey Lee-Lo and Cory Allen in the Cardiff midfield have their opposition numbers lined up. You’d expect our fly-half to be tracking Patchell, but Shingler is having to stay in the secondary defence covering Morgan.
This leaves Lloyd Williams having to cover Patchell in the channel inside Lee-Lo, which he’s not able to do on this occasion resulting in the former Cardiff man making a clean line break and eventually feeding Hadleigh Parkes to go over.
From picture two we can see how it looks with Shingler and Morgan in the back field, this time against Treviso, with just three defenders having to be by-passed in the initial defensive line. Then when neither of the fly-half or full-back can stop the final pass it begs the question why we don’t just pack the main defensive line to protect Nipper that way?
Anyway, it’s not been a good few weeks for the defence with errors bringing us down, and when the attacking unit is failing in parallel, the whole team looks distinctly bottom half of the Pro12 standard. Graham Steadman has a lot of work to do in really nailing down a coherent defensive strategy.
Having watched our attacking be nullified quite easily by some straight forward team blitzes in recent weeks I can’t help but feel the answer is a simple one. Bring the line up quickly and as one then it suffocates the opposition 10. Just ask Ireland after beating the ‘unbeatable’ All Blacks.
This does then rely on the players being willing to put their bodies on the line, as they did in early September, and being coached so that they are ready and able to do that. What we need is an example to work off and it came on Friday night in Treviso from the most unlikely source.
19 year-old Rhun Williams, making his debut for Cardiff, and weighing no more than about 14 stone wet through, makes this huge hit to deny a certain try just a metre from the line…
The maul went down and Cardiff get the scrum with just a three point lead and less than 15 minutes from full-time. A hit to inspire a team into defending properly and a real wake up call for the more experienced heads who should not be leaving it to an academy player to set any examples, especially in defence.
All in all it’s top stuff from Rhun, time to wise up for everyone else and come on Cardiff!!!