Richard Hodges’ young Cardiff Blues side were on the end of a hammering at the hands of Exeter Chiefs on Sunday, with the home side running in 10 of the game’s 14 tries. It will be a steep learning curve for the players and coaches alike and sparks a debate over whether the club were right to approach the game in the way they did.
The average age of the side was 21 as only Rhun Williams survived from the Pro12 trip to Treviso last week. There were debuts for eight players, while James Beal, Hemi Barnes and Jack Davies were given a chance to step up from semi-professional rugby. Rhodri Davies was amongst the debutants, an injury cover signing at scrum-half during the current international call-up and injury crisis.
Cardiff got off to a flyer with Jarrod Evans kicking us into the lead inside a minute thanks to Exeter knocking on and an offside player collecting the loose ball. Then just two minutes later, after we recovered the ball from the kick-off, Kirby Myhill created a try from nothing, drawing in two defenders and popping a pass for James Sheekey to cross unopposed. Evans added the extras for a 10-0 lead.
That, however, was as good as it got for the Cardiff side who went on to concede a try bonus point in 20 minutes, lose Myhill to a yellow card for maul collapsing, Evans to a nasty looking facial injury that required hospital treatment and overall leak 31 points in the first half to have already lost the game by the time the interval came around.
Without going through every try play-by-play it’s easier to look at what went wrong as it was the same story for most of the tries. It started with Exeter being completely dominant with their rolling maul. There was nothing the Cardiff pack could legally do to stop it and that coughed up a penalty try which resulted in Myhill’s sin binning. Although Myhill and James Down were included as senior players they’re not the biggest and even if they were there would’ve been nothing they could do.
The size was a general problem across the pitch as Exeter enjoyed a freedom to offload and get over the gain line at basically every opportunity. The tackling was just not strong enough to stop the home side’s players freeing their arms to get the ball away, while a back row forced totally onto the back foot were almost entirely ineffective at the breakdown to prevent quick ball.
In what little attack we could muster as Exeter took a breather from dominating possession there was such a focus on retaining the ball post-tackle that the backs were almost entirely outnumbered and found it difficult to launch any sort of move, also thanks to the lack of training time these players have together.
Individual mistakes from young, inexperienced players, or those more used to semi-professional standard, didn’t help the cause and that would continue into the second half as five more tries were run in after the break. With the game getting more open it was only inevitable, especially with a bench full of debutants most of which were playing their first ever senior professional game.
There was a silver lining though as the team never gave up and managed to score three tries of their own to secure a try bonus point during the second half. James Beal crossed first, touching down a superb Harri Millard grubber kick through after Seb Davies had run 60 metres to make the original break.
Then Rhun Williams made his professional rugby record three tries in two games with a brace here. For the first, Dane Blacker scooped up a loose ball after an excellent Ben Jones high kick, only to be brought down at the last second. Fortunately he had the awareness to offload to the full-back on his shoulder, before Williams took advantage of some comical Exeter defending as two men failed to collect a loose ball over the try line.
At one point, with the scoreline 38-25, it seemed like we might see something incredible, but in hindsight that was just being incredibly optimistic. The team as a whole was outclassed and outmuscled which was well reflected in the scoreline and raises the question about whether going out and getting thrashed by superior teams with vastly more experienced squads is a worthwhile exercise in the development for these young players. I feel a blog coming on!
I will say though that there was some encouraging points. I thought number eight James Sheekey was a willing and strong ball carrier, Rhun Williams again impressed as did the young half-back pairing of Dane Blacker and Ben Jones considering it was their first senior appearances and they were permanently on the back foot. Replacement loosehead Rhys Carre just looks like a prop while Seb Davies got through a lot of work on the blindside but is definitely more of a lock.
So pros and cons to a tough day at the office, but hopefully the coaches can spin this into a learning curve and away from a confidence destroyer. It will be interesting though to see what sort of team is sent out to face Ospreys on Friday at CAP in the second Anglo-Welsh group game. With a few injuries and some tired legs I’d expect to see a few senior faces return to the matchday squad and provide some stability to the youngsters, that would be a good balance. Come on Cardiff!!!