The turn of the year generally strikes the halfway point through any given Northern Hemisphere season, so with that in mind this week’s blog takes a look back an what has been a largely up-and-down few months for Cardiff Blues in the form of their report card.
September showed much promise for Cardiff who started the season off with a bang. Four wins from four, including particularly impressive performances against Munster away and Glasgow at home, saw many sit up and take notice of Danny Wilson’s men.
However, October brought about some autumn blues as the work ethic slipped and three league defeats from three saw the form slip to an extent where only two more Pro12 victories have been possible across eight games.
This has left Cardiff teetering right on the edge of being able to challenge for the all-important top six, and falling away to mix it with the lesser teams of each nation, and the dreaded Italian sides.
Away from league action and into Europe, the Challenge Cup has been a happier hunting ground for the side, with a bonus point win away at Bristol kicking off proceedings, before home victories over Section Paloise and Bath. A defeat at The Rec means top spot has been lost for now, but two wins in January will put the pressure on the Premiership side.
Attacking: Grade B-
The one big weapon to be carried over from last season was the offensive side of the game, and that seemed to have been enhanced again with the arrival of Bristol attack coach Matt Sherratt over the summer.
Early games came with speed from first phase ball and a directness with flair that Team Wales obviously felt they could learn something from as Sherratt was asked to assist with their Autumn International series.
However, injuries at key time to Gareth Anscombe, Dan Fish and Tom James, as well as blooding new midfield combination of Lloyd Williams, Steve Shingler, Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo have all counted against Cardiff as the attack looked somewhat lost and disorganised through to the season mid-point.
Flashes of the brilliance have said the overall grade from slipping too much, however there’s work to be done to recover the offensive form that could have pushed for an A+ after such early season promise.
Defending: Grade C+
If anything, the defensive game has gone the other way to that of the offensive side of the game, having an average start to the season before faltering dramatically during the miserable October. However, the last few weeks have been a revelation in being solid when not in possession.
September somewhat papered over the cracks of our dodgy defence as we outscored anything that came near, however when that tactic ran out, the line was exposed for the narrow shambles it was, and first up tackling took a real hit as teams sliced through us with ease.
46 points conceded at Ospreys, 26 against Scarlets and 28 in Treviso, all totals indicative of a defence going through a confidence crisis.
Former Rugby League international Graham Steadman doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to let this go lightly though, and the Cardiff defence coach has clearly worked extremely hard leading into December to rectify the issues that plagued the previous weeks.
The line is now a cohesive unit, coming up at speed and providing coverage across the field. It also provides scope to utilise two player tackles wherever possible, stopping teams even getting to the gain line, and the return of all three blindside flankers to fitness means they can get in to low ball down and attempt turnovers.
It’s been a painful process, but there’s a real corner being turned with the defence, and it deserves it’s not too low mark. Hopefully it can maintain that going forward.
Forwards: Grade D
A fail mark might seem a bit harsh for the pack, however there has been a few things beyond their control. The big issue has no doubt been injuries to George Earle and Nick Williams through the mid point of the early season, stripping Cardiff of a weight and ball carrying power
We all saw how much Nick Williams was missed with a distinct lack of front foot ball produced while he was in the treatment room, however the ability of the forwards to perform effectively at attacking breakdowns, in the scrum and the maul does depend on the power in the engine room.
When we went to Ospreys away in October we took Josh Turnbull and Macauley Cook at lock. Two very good players, but two flankers by trade and neither of which possess the weight or strength to match the likes of Alun Wyn Jones.
Away from that there has also been issues with the set piece, particularly the lineout, which has been a let down at certain times, while the driving maul has been somewhat lacking as a weapon when we do retain ball from our own throw-in.
All-in-all there’s just been too much inconsistency up front for a pass mark, and although things have improved slightly over the last few weeks, there’s still some way to go before the forwards are at a really top six challenging level.
Backs: Grade C
As with the attack, the backs have gone from very good to quite bad in the space of about three months. Injuries have no doubt hindered them, with the 10/15 axis of Gareth Anscombe and Dan Fish both missing for periods, however the players that are left are much better than they have been performing.
There has been plenty of cohesion issues, as well as an interesting coaching set up whereby new attack coach Matt Sherratt has turned up before heading off with Wales, but the step backwards in performance has been dramatic.
Under the high balls we have been extremely dodgy, while defending has been an issue in the wide channels and the back field. Counter-attacking has largely been good, but the other way of playing from deep, not so much….
Kicking: Grade E
Now this should really be a U, however it is saved by two things. Firstly, our goal kicking has largely been at an acceptable level, and there was one good open play kicking performance against Bath at home. Aside from that it’s been largely dreadful.
High kicks are generally far too long, and as such are rarely chased resulting in free possession for the opposition. There’s a similar story for tactical kicking, which so often goes straight down the throat of an opposition counter-attacker you have to wonder if there’s some dodgy try scorer betting on our side.
The story of box-kicking is no better, which are too long and giving free possession away every time, with a similar kick chase scenario played out. Quite frankly, our kicking is a mess.
Set Piece: Grade D
A difficult one this one as our scrum has actually been largely solid. Gethin Jenkins and Rhys Gill on the loosehead are solid, experienced operators, as is Fa’ao Filise in the tight, with Scott Andrews improving dramatically over the summer as his backup to provide a credible second choice.
However, I cannot give the set piece a pass-mark with the lineout and driving maul the way it has been. It’s been an almost constant area of weakness, and been a massive hindrance in scoring tries.
Cardiff have been unlucky with refereeing decisions across all set pieces there’s no question, but from the amount of lost lineout ball, to the sloppy format of our attacking mauls, that side of the set piece play has been an embarrassment.
Overall Grade: C-
A pass by the absolute skin of the teeth. As we just about cling onto a chance of making the top six, it’s the month of September that has really saved the first half of the season, but such promise has faded quickly.
2017 will have to start with a bang in Cardiff, otherwise another season of bottom half Pro12 obscurity waits, along with yet another Challenge Cup campaign.