It was the season to be jolly and joyous….or at least if your rugby team actually wins games anyway! December was an up-and-down month, well mainly down, as there were two wins and as many losses for the senior team, while the A side lost twice in a week. Off the pitch there were plenty of injuries and a few international appointments.
On The Pitch
December started with the visit of Ulster to the Arms Park, in an important game for the sixth-place battle. Alex Cuthbert and Gethin Jenkins all returned from international duty after the November games, while Willis Halaholo made his home debut., however Sam Warburton was forced to withdraw at the last minute due to sickness.
The game started in an even manner, but turned on the 25th minute as Blaine Scully was yellow-carded for slowing the ball down in the redzone, and soon Ulster took advantage with three tries in 10 minutes giving them a commanding lead. Only a Kris Dacey try on 40 minutes made the scoreline even close to acceptable, 8-21 half-time.
The second half was a back-and-forth affair as Ulster stretched their need initially, before King Nicky Robinson came off the bench in his first appearance since returning to the club to set up tries for Willis Halaholo and Alex Cuthbert. However, the fly-half then turned villain as he went to clear his lines, only for his kick to be charged down and the away side touched down to win the game.
Cardiff 22-35 Ulster: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/12/05/cardiff-22-35-ulster/
A disappointing start to the month, but a distraction from poor Pro12 was upcoming as Bath arrived at CAP for the first of our Challenge Cup double headers the next week. Danny Wilson made four changes with Sam Warburton now fit to return to action, while injury ruled out Tom James, Josh Turnbull and Gethin Jenkins. Into the side came Matthew Morgan, Seb Davies and Rhys Gill in their places.
In some very wet conditions in Cardiff it was the battle of the kickers in the first half, with Steve Shingler coming out on top out of hand and off the tee, giving the home side a 9-3 lead as the teams went in to get dry.
Shingler then turned his attention to creating tries in the second half as he made the initial break that saw the ball recycled to Matthew Morgan for a try, before his high kick found Sam Warburton and subsequently Alex Cuthbert. 25 minutes to go for the bonus point but only Scott Andrews got over the line late on for a still impressive 28-3 win.
Cardiff 28-3 Bath: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/12/12/cardiff-28-3-bath/
With a five day turnaround before the Thursday night return fixture there was inevitable Cardiff team changes as Macauley Cook was preferred to young Seb Davies, while injuries to Kris Dacey and Alex Cuthbert meant that Kirby Myhill and Cory Allen started. On the flip side the squad depth of Bath meant they could recall a number of internationals to their XV.
Despite this the first half was pretty even. Bath largely dominated possession but some excellent defence from Cardiff, as well as some dodgy George Ford kicking, restricted them to just one try in the first half and a Shingler penalty made it just 10-3 at half-time.
The second half though was turned on it’s head early on as Myhill was yellow-carded for a tip tackle. From the resulting penalty Bath went to the corner and drove over the line for the try, but on the process George Earle was adjudged to have made contact the eye of a Bath player. Did he touch the face? Yes. Did he mean to? No. Nevertheless after some slow-motion TMO repays he was shown a red card.
Cardiff attempted to hit straight back with some dominant scrummaging, but the referee inexplicably penalised our forwards in the end, opening the door for Bath to run away with the game thanks to tries from Aled Brew, Elliott Stooke and Ross Batty on the way to a 38-3 victory. All in all it doesn’t leave Danny Wilson’s side in a terrible position to qualify for the knockout stages, but it relies on other results to secure a home quarter-final draw.
Bath 38-3 Cardiff: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/12/18/bath-38-3-cardiff/
While all this European action was on there was double disappointment for Cardiff Blues A in their double header against Ulster A, as a Pele Cowley red card scuppered chances of a win in Belfast, before some more dodgy refereeing decisions at the scrum stole a win from Richard Hodges’ men at Sardis Road.
The on-field action finished on Boxing Day with the visit of Newport Gwent Dragons to CAP in a game that saw Sam Warburton reach his 100th Cardiff appearance, but saw injury woes deepen as Tom James withdrew late thanks to a mystery illness. On the plus side, Nick Williams finally made his return to action after two months.
Steve Shingler got off to a flyer as he managed an excellent individual finish in the corner before trading kicks with opposite number Angus O’Brien. Winger Ashton Hewitt pulled a try back with a solo score of his own, but late tries from Kris Dacey and Josh Navidi ensured Cardiff went in 27-15 ahead at the break.
With the bonus point in sight Cardiff piled on the pressure in the second period but a serious case of white line fever struck and they took the tally of bonus points missed out on to three for the month, as no further points were scored by anyone after half-time.
Cardiff 27-15 Newport: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/12/31/cardiff-27-16-newport/
It left the side just about clinging on to a challenge for sixth spot come New Year’s Eve and rounded a month of up-and-downs that really reflected a year as such. What more would you expect from the Cardiff Blues really!
Off The Field
There’s only one place to start the off-field proceedings, and that’s in the treatment room. Over the course of December we have seen at some point or another, Rhun Williams, Blaine Scully, Alex Cuthbert, Macauley Cook, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams and Kris Dacey miss out on games, as well as longer-term absentees Gethin Jenkins, Josh Turnbull, Lewis Jones, Jarrod Evans, Gareth Anscombe, Dan Fish, Aled Summerhill and Tom James, PLUS both Anton Peikrishvili and George Earle suspended.
An incredibly long list containing nine players who would definitely start in a strongest XV, as well as four or five others who would push very hard. The good news is that a few are trickling back, and will do throughout January, but the long-term players like Fish, Turnbull and Gethin will leave a big hole until the end of the season at the earliest.
Out of the treatment room there wasn’t a huge amount to talk about for the rest of the month, except the news that Danny Wilson and Matt Sherratt will link up with Team Wales this summer for their to-be-confirmed tour of the Pacific Islands.
With Warren Gatland and Rob Howley off with the Lions, Robin McBryde will lead the coaching staff, with the WRU looking to invite some of the promising coaches from around the four professional clubs on tour to enhance their experience and possibly ready them for international coaching at some point down the line.
I’ve seen some apprehension about our coaches heading off with Wales rather than concentrating on Cardiff, but personally I’m chuffed for them, and in professional terms I don’t believe for a second they would do anything to harm the club. June is the domestic off-season, there’s time to setup pre-season before and after, and being with Team Wales can only improve them as coaches.
Player of the Month
With all the injuries we’ve used a few different players throughout the month and there’s not been much consistency, however a few players have still put themselves forward. James Down and Rhys Gill have been very solid in the forwards and put in big shifts to rectify the defensive issues that plagued November.
Sam Warburton was also very impressive as he got a run of a few games together, while in the backs we’ve seen match winning performances from Steve Shingler against Bath home and Newport, and Blaine Scully has been as consistent as ever.
However, this month’s award goes to Kristian Dacey who has been excellent in every game he’s appeared in. An increasingly strong operator at the scrum, he’s worked hard on his lineout throwing and his biggest strength is still his carrying which has resulted in tries against Ulster and Newport. A shoe-in for the Wales squad if you ask me, and for more than tackle bag holding.