Cardiff Blues returned to Pro12 action with a bump on Friday night as they suffered a defeat to Connacht in Galway. A disappointing performance leaves plenty of work to do to if the team are going to establish a top six presence by the end of the festive period.
Danny Wilson didn’t particularly spring any surprises with the team selection as Dan Fish was preferred to Matthew Morgan at full-back and similarly Blaine Scully over Alex Cuthbert on the wing. Up front there was Scott Andrews at tighthead with Fa’ao Filise on the bench, Jarrad Hoeata selected at lock and Josh Navidi returned from injury to start at number eight.
The opening quarter of an hour was a cagey affair at the Sportsground as Connacht dominated possession but failed to threaten the red zone. Turnovers from Josh Turnbull and Ellis Jenkins lifted pressure, while good defensive covering from Tomos Williams mopped up two dangerous kicks over the top from the home side. However, poor clearance kicks and some risky passing inside our own 22 halted any chance of counter-attacking.
Unfortunately, with 15 minutes on the clock, one of Williams’ kick coverages resulted in an attacking five metre scrum and Connacht’s pack turned on the power, driving Cardiff back over the try line allowing scrum-half John Cooney the opportunity to simple touch the ball down. Cooney converted his own try for a seven point lead but it’d wouldn’t last long.
From the kick-off Blaine Scully chased and tackled the Connacht receiver on the 22 metre line. The home side tried to play from deep but a well-organised Cardiff blitz defence forced him to throw a looping pass out wide straight into the grateful arms of Tom James who simply jogged in for his seventh try of the season.
Steve Shingler added the extras and the away side were very much in the ascendancy as Willis Halaholo helped launched an attack with a fantastic carry that would see Cardiff camped in the red zone a few phases later. Blaine Scully, Rhys Gill and Scott Andrews all went close but Josh Turnbull spilled the ball as he went to carry over the line.
Despite that scoring opportunity going begging another surfaced straight away as Cardiff got the shove on from the resulting scrum and won a penalty. However, Shingler pulled it comfortably wide and the scores remained level at 7-7.
The scoreboard did not change for the final 15 minutes of the first period until the last kick of the half saw Cooney land a penalty and take Connacht into the lead at the break. It was a tight first half with Cardiff having their fair share of penalties and territories but the hosts finished the stronger and eventually forced the visitors to infringe at the scrum for a chance to get their noses ahead.
A bigger concern for Cardiff than conceding a penalty though, was Dan Fish picking up a potentially serious left hamstring injury after being cleared out from a defensive ruck and one of the most consistent players in a blue jersey could be looking at months out rather than weeks.
Matthew Morgan appeared in Fish’s place for the second half but couldn’t get hands on the ball early on as Connacht dominated. Camped in the Cardiff 22 their attack was only stopped as Scott Andrews was, somewhat harshly, penalised for an early tackle and Cooney nudged the home side a further three points in the lead.
Just five minutes later though the lead was stretched again as Morgan went to counter attack from deep, only to lose the ball in contact. Stacey Ili hacked on and collected before being brought down short of the line by Willis Halaholo but Connacht remained composed, spinning the ball wide from right to left where Bundee Aki benefited from Tiernan O’Halloran’s offload to score.
Cardiff desperately fought to get back in the game during the last 20 minutes, but mistakes and a general lack of accuracy hindered us at every opportunity. There were a number of half-breaks from the likes of Williams, Lee-Lo, Morgan and James, however they were never turned into real scoring opportunities.
Loose passes, slow phase play post-initial break and far too many knock-ons took the wind out of Cardiff sails. One of those knock-ons, by Matthew Morgan, was costly as for the second time in the game we saw a certain try go begging as the ball was spilled over the line.
Particularly as the last five minutes came around, with the away side looking to just come home with a losing bonus point at this stage, there was a lost lineout and a simple knock-on allowing Connacht to retain possession and eventually boot the ball into the freezing Galway night and claim victory.
Overall for Cardiff there were, weirdly, a fair few positives to take over the 80 minutes I thought. The defence looked much improved on recent Pro12 games, although there’s still a bit of work to be done, while in attack we looked dangerous to an extent, despite Danny Wilson’s refusal to use the less experienced members of the bench towards the end of the game as a few men looked out on their feet.
Elsewhere the work at the breakdown was much better, and with a referee that isn’t Nigel Owens it’ll look even more impressive, while individually Willis Halaholo still appears incredibly sharp and the forwards fronted up more on ball carrying duties.
Having said the above though, that is in comparison to the last few Pro12 games where performances were well under par, meaning there is plenty of work to be done ahead of what is now a crucial encounter against Ulster at the Arms Park on Saturday.
Silly unforced errors were the bane of Cardiff lives on Friday night and will need to be cut out before then, as the ball was dropped twice with the try line beckoning, loose passes were aplenty as the new look midfield continues to gel and up front the set piece was a disaster on the whole.
So, a mixed bag all in all, but looking on the bright side we were not far off getting it right on Friday. If a few more passes or carries at stuck to hand then we could easily have been talking about a deserved Cardiff win. A week of focusing on those basic areas that let us down and building the confidence ahead of Saturday will do the team good.
What with welcoming the Team Wales internationals back this weekend and hopefully playing in front of a packed CAP thanks to a tea-time kick-off I am hopeful of a really positive home win going into the European double header. Come on Cardiff!!!