It’s been an undeniably disappointing three weeks for the Cardiff Blues as a failed try bonus-point attempt against Newport Gwent Dragons was followed by two defeats on the road in Llanelli and Glasgow.
Those minimum nine dropped points have seen us slip six points behind Ulster in sixth place, who also have a game in hand over us against Italian opposition. This has effectively rendered us out of the race for the top six and unable to qualify automatically for the Champions Cup, barring a miracle upturn in form.
During the unbeaten opening four games of the season I did another analysis piece the exact opposite to this where I looked at how we were in the middle of averaging 26 points per match during September. Fast forward four months though, and we’ve averaged a little over 17 the past three weeks and at times looked completely lost in possession.
Remember when we were good at rugby? https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/09/14/analysis-attacking-threat/
There have been a whole host of issues going forward in the last few games; attacking pods of forwards have been largely missing, pace has been completely lacking at times and the amount of handling errors has been quite staggering for professional sports.
However, what I want to focus on in this piece is our backs, their patterns and why we’ve only came away with one win, six tries and no try bonus points from a set of fixtures that should have resulted in at least a four-try win over Newport, a victory in Llanelli and a losing bonus point in Glasgow, had we not shot ourselves in the foot consistently.
An idea of how long we’ve been making mistakes, I covered it in November: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/11/29/analysis-errors-detected/
Let’s start with the problems up front and a distinct lack of ball carriers providing front foot ball as a basis for the attack. In the four games during September we averaged 402 carrying metres, whereas in the three games over Christmas and into the New Year we averaged less at 372, with the game against Scarlets actually being the highest metres made in a game, but purely due to the amount of kicking.
What it means when you’re being beaten up front is that quick ball is hard to come by, as is attempts to move forward onto the ball, which gives a momentum advantage to your backs, as well as putting the defence into an almost constant state of partial scramble defence. Overall, you’re in the driving seat to dictate play.
So, we don’t get the front foot ball, however we certainly aren’t helped by the slow ball that has been coming from the breakdown to the backs in recent time. Lloyd Williams has been repeatedly trusted to steer the ship from scrum-half, however he has been suffering from an ongoing crisis in confidence ever since returning from international tackle bag holding duty in November.
Early in the season he was in great form, sniping from the breakdown, providing excellent service for both Gareth Anscombe and Steve Shingler, as well as being effective in box kicking both as an exit strategy and for territory.
However, since November he’s struggled for the confidence to play quickly from breakdowns and set pieces, with a ‘Lloyd pose’ now being adopted across Welsh rugby of the scrum-half standing with his foot on the ball looking around for the best passing option. Talk about a momentum killer. There’s also been issues with a crabbing tendency when he does take the ball from the base, as well as some extremely suspect box kicking which is neither for territory or able to be chased.
Now I don’t believe Lloyd to be a bad player for one second, but everyone is prone to a spell of poor form once in a while, and it might be preferable for him to sit out a game or two, give Tomos Williams a go, and let form come back to him in training and through building a better partnership with Steve Shingler.
This leads me into the main crux of the article, the relationships through the Cardiff midfield which haven’t been formed yet, and due to a number of reasons seem quite a way off at this moment. There’s issues with game management and control from fly-half, a lack of cohesion between 10 and 12, all contributing to the knock-on effect of the outside backs being largely ineffective.
Let’s start with a throwback to earlier in the season where we were attacking with freedom. You can see the triangle set-up used with the forwards providing almost a block on the defenders, keeping them occupied in midfield as they worried about any crash ball lines, before switching the pass out of the back door, and even with a longer pass it works well because the defenders are already committed.
The key is Gareth Anscombe’s position at the point of the triangle, as flat to the line as possible. That takes up the inside two or three defenders, and results in opposition players ending up with body positions like those inside the first player with the arrow at his first, scrambling to be in a position to help cover his outside defenders from the pace of Dan Fish and the manufactured overlap.
Fast forward to Boxing Day and although the idea is roughly the same, the execution is way off. Steve Shingler is at first receiver with Rey Lee-Lo offering a crash ball line and Matthew Morgan waiting out the back to take advantage of any created space.
The issue is that there will be no created space for the reason that it’s all taking place too deep. Shingler is about five metres back from the line, meaning that the Newport defence can come up as a unit and have plenty of time to assess any moves that may be made and react to them. With the speed of execution also an issue, the move is doomed from the very start.
In practice this is what that looks like. We can see in the first image that Shingler is again about five metres back, with Willis Halaholo another five metres behind, so that when the fly-half uses James Down and Macauley Cook as dummy runners the outside defenders can easily step up to meet our outside backs as they have loads of time to react to the ball being pushed out of the back door.
Cardiff are then caught a good five or ten metres behind the gain line, with the forwards a long way from assisting at the break down and all the momentum is with the Llanelli defence to disrupt in any way they can.
These aren’t isolated incidents either and they’re not being picked up on as there’s one from each of the three games there, this one from Glasgow finishing it off as Shingler has taken the ball from a forward at first receiver in a position far too deep from the original breakdown, allowing Glasgow to already be in a position to stop the outside attack a good ten metres behind the gain line.
Four examples, away from the attacking triangle setup, of Shingler standing very deep at first receiver. In three of the photos I have also pointed out the knock-on effect outside the fly-half in regular phase play, whereby the players are very flat owing to little space. As such we become very predictable in our attacking, and providing the opposition have a decent defensive line and speed, are very easy to stop.
Now I don’t blame Shingler solely for this, as outlined above without the front foot ball from the forwards it is tough to stand flat at first receiver, especially when the service isn’t great from the scrum-half either, but standing closer to the line could at least offset these slightly. Overall, it’s not great in the sense that no parts of the attacking model are working well.
There is a further knock-on from these troubles in that, with Shingler standing so deep from the line, Willis Halaholo is often standing deeper again at inside centre. When you look at the picture above, the new signing receives the ball behind his own ten metre line from a breakdown starting point inside Scarlets half. The defence is already up on him and he’s brought down for a loss of almost ten metres.
In practice it looks like this whereby Rey Lee-Lo, currently occupying the 12 position, is a long way off Shingler even in a confined short-side area. When the fly-half does straighten the line on this occasion, his lengthy and mostly backwards pass means that it’s a simple job for the Scarlets players to get round and cover the three-on-one overlap.
It is also the case that Lee-Lo’s depth impacts on Matthew Morgan and Rhun Williams outside him, squeezing them to the touchline and giving them no space to work with when they get past Johnny McNicholl, ending chances of the line break being converted into points.
Two more examples of Willis Halaholo receiving the ball so deep but with the defence already closing the space. It results quite often in the former Hurricane having to kick the ball away, and as he is not a particularly natural footballer, the consequences of that are somewhat hit-and-miss.
Again, this is not any stinging criticism of Halaholo, but a reflection on how out poor attacking shape is leading to Cardiff putting pressure on ourselves, and restricting our most talented players from showing what they can do with ball in hand. With our defence now in good nick, the attack is the big let down.
So what can be done about it? Well I think the answer to that came in the last 10 minutes at Scotstoun on Saturday. His name was Nicky Robinson, and he comes with the caveat of Steve Shingler at 12. The two of them together provided a real basis to work the outside backs off, and the team really seemed to thrive on having two natural first receivers.
The first thing to note is that Nicky’s experience allows him to stand much nearer to the line, as a result you get players running off him, rather than standing next to him, or about five metres behind him.
In the first picture the defence has the doubt of whether the ball will go straight to Blaine Scully on an inside crash line, or to either 10 or 12 as the distributor to wider channels, as well as both Shingler and Robinson being capable of functioning a line break for themselves.
Picture two is even better with two crash lines, Nicky going alone, or heading out the back to Rey Lee-Lo or Matthew Morgan. Without that element of doubt in the defence’s mind, we are far too easy to stop. We have to become harder to read, and for me this is the way.
It also allows Willis Halaholo and/or Rey Lee-Lo some well deserved rest, with both players having played an unholy amount of rugby this year, and a chance to go over some tactical stuff in their burgeoning centre partnership.
To finish off, a proving of my point, as Shingler finds himself at first receiver, King Nicky wraps around and goes through a hole created by giving the defence something to think about, before floating a wonderful pass out to Rhun Williams that only a fly-half could throw.
The two options at first receiver will give Lloyd Williams a better chance of returning to quick ball knowing that one of them will always be stood in the fly-half position, and should give that all important platform to the likes of Matthew Morgan, Blaine Scully, Alex Cuthbert and Tom James to get back over the line in a winning side.
Plenty of food for thought as we continue through this really crucial part of the season challenging in Europe while also trying to rediscover our Pro12 mojo. We have the players available to pull off the attacking play we saw in September, they just need to be given the chance to do it. Come on Cardiff!!