New Year’s Day saw Cardiff Blues begin 2017 with a disappointing defeat away to Llanelli at Parc y Scarlets, as attack deficiencies once again proved the downfall for Danny Wilson’s men in the hunt for the top six.
There were two initial changes to the starting XV that beat Newport on Boxing Day, as Fa’ao Filise was preferred to Scott Andrews at tighthead, while Rhun Williams returned from injury to replace Cory Allen at wing. However, on the morning of the game Nick Williams experienced a tight calf and was withdrawn for Ellis Jenkins to start.
The opening ten minutes of the game was a scoreless but entertaining affair as both teams battled for dominance in possession and territory. Line breaks from Rhun Williams and Johnny McNicholl were seen off by the respective defences, while a number of knock-ons threatened to hinder the flow of the match.
The deadlock was opened just after the 10 minute mark though, thanks to a mixture of individual brilliance and individual misadventure. Llanelli full-back Aled Thomas kicked long into Cardiff’s 22, and with Matthew Morgan out of position chasing an up-and-under, it was down to Alex Cuthbert to deal.
The winger decided to kick long, hooking it in-field slightly to Rhys Patchell who, like the great full-back he should be, dummied to kick long and made a half-break, stepping straight past the chasing Cuthbert in the process.
With the Wales winger out of position, the Scarlets recycled quickly down the blindside where McNicholl found Steff Evans who stepped past the covering Rhun Williams for a clear run to the corner. No conversion, but a 5-0 lead for the home side.
Cardiff attempted to get straight back into the game through Matthew Morgan’s midfield break, but a poorly staffed attacking breakdown conceded a turnover before Willis Halaholo’s break was ruined by one of Fa’ao Filise’s many first half handling errors.
In the end we had to wait until the half-hour mark for more points, and it was Llanelli again as Sam Warburton was penalised for side entry at the breakdown to allow Rhys Patchell an easy kick at goal.
It took until the 34th minute for the away side to finally make it onto the scoreboard as Scarlets scrum-half Jonathan Evans was penalised for being offside and Steve Shingler did the honours off the tee.
The first half drew to a largely predictable close with Cardiff in possession, as we probably had been for most of the 40 minutes, spending up to eight phases going side-to-side of slow ball, before Shingler knocked on and Nigel Owens put us out of our misery with the half-time whistle.
It seemed that whatever was said during the break didn’t really work for Cardiff who straight from the off were on the back foot thanks to their own poor play. Firstly, Llanelli secured an easy turnover in midfield, allowing John Barclay to kick the ball in behind. Alex Cuthbert covered but never got hold of possession, giving the home side the ball on our five metre line.
Fortuntely Steff Evans knocked on, but soon we were back defending as our attacking frailties let us down once more. Willis Halaholo made a half break, but attempts at quick ball were squandered at each break down due to a lack of any speed from Lloyd Williams and some bizarrely deep first receiver positions from Steve Shingler.
Eventually Lloyd was left with no option but to kick in behind, which he managed to completely mess up and allow Johnny McNicholl to counter. The winger’s kick on was this time successfully recovered by Cuthbert, but another decision to box kick by Lloyd was made all the more ridiculous when he hammered far too long, giving possession away for free.
The final mistake in this two minute debacle saw Rey Lee-Lo step out of the defensive line as Llanelli attacked form their easily returned possession, allowing the ball to be spun straight past him for Steff Evans to exploit the gap. The ball went wide to Jonathan Davies before being lobbed back inside to his centre partner Scott Williams to score.
Easy conversion kicked and soon Cardiff were 15-3 down inside five minutes of the second half.
Again Cardiff tried to get back into the game, to their credit, as quick hands from Matthew Morgan released Rhun Williams down the left, but the young man’s inexperience showed as he threw a blind pass inside which was never going to be collected by Willis Halaholo.
However, the centre would be over the line just five minutes later. A poor Aled Thomas chip over the top was collected in space by Steve Shingler who stepped back onto the blind side as he counter attacked, before releasing Lloyd Williams down the left. Halaholo ran a lovely inside support line before putting Rhys Patchell on his backside with a step and touching down.
The half-backs teaming up well on that occasion to create the try, but it’s the bread and butter work they need to improve on. Lloyd looks shot of all confidence after a month with Team Wales, and a new partnership with Shingler isn’t helping as it seems he doesn’t often know where the fly-half is.
Shingler needs to stand much flatter and be seen to command the attack a bit more, as when he does we get line breaks like the one he created for Josh Navidi to go through a gap, but unfortunately the 10 tends to go missing a bit much in games like this. In terms of the Navidi break, it rather summed up in the afternoon in the excellence of the break, before the telegraphed inside pass was so easy for Llanelli to intercept. Attack over.
The other issue with the attack is the amount of lateral movement. Like the half-backs, Halaholo and Lee-Lo are in the infancy of their partnership, but hopefully they can work on a touch more directness in their attacking as there’s too much sideways running and sidestepping at the moment to create any decent line breaks.
The remaining 20 minutes of the game passed by in a mire of tediousness thanks to mistakes on all sides and a lack of any real options of the Cardiff bench that were going to put is into an attacking position. Coupled with some suspect refereeing decisions at the breakdown and scrum time from the famous referee, it just wasn’t to be.
A big positive to come out of the game though, the only positive in fact, was the much improved defence showing itself in a very good light again. Line speed, cohesion and tackling is massively better than that of two months ago, and it makes much difference to a fan’s heart rate to be confident in the team’s defence.
So there’s something there to be built on for Cardiff, but with just a week between this loss and Glasgow away it’ll have to be a big effort from attack coach Matt Sherratt on the training field to get the backs into some kind of attacking shape that capitalises on the undoubted talent in the back line.
The coaches and players are saying all the right things in the media, time to put them into practice ahead of probably the biggest game of the season so far. Win in Scotland and we’re right in the hunt for the top six. Lose up there and it’s another season of bottom half rugby. Come on Cardiff!!!!!