The first month of the calendar year means money worries, bad weather and the general January blues, but the good news is that the Cardiff Blues were still around, and actually won a few times!!
It was a long old month off the field, with varying amounts of good and bad news, but overall there’s a certain air of positivity around the club after a difficult period of injuries and poor results managed to ruin the season after such an encouraging start.
On The Field
January got underway on New Year’s Day with a trip down to Llanelli for a second Welsh derby over the festive period, in a hunt for a second win in a week. Danny Wilson tried to keep a settled starting XV, making just two changes initially as Rhun Williams returned from injury to replace Cory Allen, while Fa’ao Filise was preferred to Scott Andrews at tighthead.
Disaster struck just before kick-off though as Nick Williams pulled out at the eleventh hour with a tight calf, with Ellis Jenkins stepping up from the bench. The big ball carrying was seriously missed as Cardiff failed to assert any attacking dominance, while handling errors were all too regular.
It was a different error that cost us early though as a poor Alex Cuthbert kick and chase allowed Rhys Patchell to break, before Johnny McNicholl went through the gap left by our winger and feed Steff Evans for a clear run-in. Patchell missed the conversion but traded penalties with Steve Shingler for an 8-3 half-time scoreline.
More poor attacking from Cardiff cost us in the second half as Lloyd Williams was forced to kick the ball away, fluffed the kick straight to McNicholl. He counter-attacked and quick ball was setup for the home side, causing Rey Lee-Lo to solo blitz but miss the tackle and Steff Evans took advantage to make the break and find Jonathan Davies before the ball was chucked back inside to Scott Williams for the try.
It seemed to be an afternoon of poor kicks as Aled Thomas was the next culprit, kicking straight to Shingler who fed Lloyd Williams down the touchline. The scrum-half drew the last man before releasing Willis Halaholo to score. The conversion made it 15-10 but that is how it would stay as the game fizzled out in a mire of unforced errors and slow attacking from Cardiff.
Scarlets 15-10 Cardiff: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2017/01/07/llanelli-15-10-cardiff/
Not the best performance to lead into one of the toughest tests in European rugby at the moment, a trip to Glasgow. Danny Wilson welcomed back Blaine Scully from injury, and Anton Peikrishvili from suspension, but it would take some massive improvements to come away from Scotstoun with anything of note.
In inevitable fashion the Scottish side went ahead early and dominated the game as Cardiff spent the first 20 minutes defending, but came out just 10-0 down and got on the scoreboard just before half-time as Blaine Scully took advantage of a partially charged down kick to touch down in the corner. If it weren’t for handling errors from Alex Cuthbert and Rey Lee-Lo the points total may have been higher.
A Steve Shingler conversion made it 10-7, before he drew the sides level just after the break, but three tries in 20 minutes from Glasgow secured the bonus point win as they converted possession into points. Rhun Williams scored a late consolation to make the scoreline a slightly respectable 29-15, but in truth the two sides were worlds apart in terms of the quality of play.
Glasgow 29-15 Cardiff: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2017/01/10/glasgow-29-15-cardiff/
Fortunately for Danny Wilson there was a timely change of focus away from the two wins in nine form of the Pro12, and to Europe where a trip to the Pyrenees awaited. A loosehead injury crisis saw young Corey Domachowski make his first senior start, being joined by Matthew Rees and Fa’ao Filise in the front row. In the backs a new three-quarter line of Tomos Williams, Nicky Robinson, Steve Shingler and Willis Halaholo started, with Cory Allen and Rhun Williams on the wings.
Shingler put us ahead with an early penalty, but a quick-fire double from Pau gave them a 14-6 half-time lead. Unforced errors were the recurring theme once again for Cardiff, but the indiscipline of the home side gave up two further penalty kicks, before Willis Halaholo benefitted from some phases where we actually clung onto the ball to score a crucial try.
At 19-14 up and in the ascendency it seemed like Cardiff may motor on, but Pau managed to get their noses back in front with 10 minutes to go. With qualification for the knockout stages at stake the away side threw the kitchen sink at the French team, and eventually referee Gary Conway awarded the simplest of penalties for Shingler to win the game late on.
Pau 21-22 Cardiff: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2017/01/16/pau-21-22-cardiff/
With that win it came down to a home tie against Bristol to secure a quarter-final spot, where a win would secure qualification as a best runner-up. After so many weeks of injuries there was finally some good news for Danny Wilson as he welcomed back Nick Williams and Gareth Anscombe from the treatment room, while Rhys Gill, Kris Dacey, Blaine Scully and Rey Lee-Lo were all available for selection after not starting against Pau.
After a tense first twenty minutes passed, and certain players shook off some rust, Cardiff burst into life and Kris Dacey crossed to open the scoring. Gareth Anscombe extended the lead moments later with an interception try, but Bristol were allowed back into the contest as Andy Uren setup Jordan Williams for the easy finish before the winger turned provider for Jack Tovey to cross and make it 15-14 at half-time.
A resurgent Alex Cuthbert was on fine form during the second half as Wilson’s half-time words seemed to strike a chord with the team. Matthew Morgan scored a brace either side of a Jordan Williams interception score, the second of which was a world class counter-attacking solo try, before he laid the final try on a plate for Sam Warburton to secure a 37-21 thrashing.
Cardiff 37-21 Bristol: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2017/01/23/cardiff-37-21-bristol/
The win secured a best runner-up spot and with Stade Francias beating Harlequins on the Sunday it meant we avoided a showdown away at the Ospreys to instead make the trip to Kingsholm and face Gloucester in April. A day out I cannot wait for!
January’s on-field action was rounded off away at Sale in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, where Richard Hodges took the reigns and made 20 changes to the matchday 23, with a fully changed starting XV and only one player named aged over 23 being captain Cam Dolan.
Unfortunately the youthfulness of the side was never going to be able to compete with an experienced Sale outfit who hammered us up front scoring seven tries. Five of those came from forward drives from inside the five metre line as the weight of the home side was too much to handle.
In an ideal world there would be more senior players to compliment the young players that do find the Anglo-Welsh Cup crucial in their development, as there’s no doubt that throwing them all together to get hammered will not be massively beneficial, but due to our injury crisis the management team struggled to pick any other side.
So overall it was a pretty positive finish to the month for the first team as European progress was confirmed and gives us something to really strive for as the end of the season approaches. Three Pro12 games, and a Anglo-Welsh Cup game, coming up in February, with three of those at home, is a good chance to kick on from that again and make the second half of the season much better than the first.
Off The Field
If it’s been busy on the pitch it’s definitely been busier off it! Starting with Billy Millard’s office and three signings were confirmed during January. The first of which was BJ Edwards signing on a short-term loan from Bristol to cover George Earle’s suspension. The 22 year-old Welsh qualified player made his debut off the bench in Glasgow before starting against Sale.
Another short-term signing is Marc Thomas who comes on board from Jersey as loosehead cover following a number of injuries at prop. The 42-cap Osprey only joined the Channel Islanders in the summer but will be an experienced head over the next few weeks and made his debut off the bench against Sale.
The final, and biggest, signing was Franco Van Der Merwe who was unveiled this month. The Ulster lock will join up in the summer after spending three seasons in Northern Ireland and making over 70 appearances for the Irish side. Although he’ll be 34 by the time he arrives his experience will be vital and he is still in excellent shape, being almost ever present for the Ulstermen since 2014.
Comings and Goings: Part Two: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2017/01/30/comings-and-goings-part-two-2/
Out of the general manager’s office and into the treatment room, and it’s still not pretty reading through Cardiff’s injury list. Dan Fish, Tom James, Lewis Jones, Josh Turnbull and Gethin Jenkins are still on the longer term lists, while Brad Thyer has joined them this month after a second heavy concussion in his career against Glasgow.
There was some good news to come from the medical department though, as Nick Williams, Jarrod Evans, Gareth Anscombe and Aled Summerhill all returned from lengthy lay-offs, and with a few weeks off for Anglo-Welsh Cup action, hopefully they’ll be fully fit and ready to go come the return of Pro12 action in February.
The Great Cardiff Injury Crisis: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2017/01/24/the-great-december-injury-crisis/
Across the other side of the Vale Hotel complex there was further good news, in the short-term anyway, for Cardiff as only four players were named in Rob Howley’s Wales squad for the Six Nations. Kris Dacey, Scott Andrews, Sam Warburton and Alex Cuthbert were all included as a number of our regular internationals of recent years missed out due to a mixture of injuries and poor form.
Of course this will provide us with an advantage over the next few weeks as we retain a number of our better players for the Pro12 games in this period, but is a sad reflection of our recent form and could hit the club in the pocket going forward as WRU payments for services will be less due to the lack of players sent to the senior national side.
Elsewhere in the World of international rugby, Blaine Scully will captain the USA in their opening Americas Rugby Championship game against Uruguay before returning to Cardiff to be available for Pro12 games, and Cam Dolan will go out after the Anglo-Welsh Cup is complete to play in the remaining four ARC matches.
There are also 12 Cardiff Blues representatives in the Wales side for the U20 World Cup as Rhys Carre, Corrie Tarrant, Tom Mably, Kieron Assiratti, Callum Bradbury, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Morgan Sieniawski, Aled Ward, Dane Blacker, Ben Jones, Cameron Lewis and Rhun Williams were all selected as once again our regional development pathway provided the most players to Jason Strange’s squad.
Good luck to all players involved in international duty over the next month, and remember the most important piece of advice, don’t get injured!
Cardiff’s Six Nations Preview: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2017/01/19/six-nations-cardiff-preview-2/
Player Of The Month
A difficult one this month as there’s been some pretty inconsistent, and downright poor, performances, while the squad has been chopped and changed a lot in January. Willis Halaholo scored two tries, against Scarlets and Pau, while last month’s award winner Kris Dacey was in good form again.
Tomos Williams has been impressive but found playing time limited by Lloyd Williams, while Jarrad Hoeata put in two big performances in Europe.
January’s player of the month goes to a man who is fast becoming a cult hero at the Arms Park though, and this month he cemented that a little more. The night before the Glasgow encounter, Blaine Scully found out his grandmother had passed away back home in America. Despite this he still turned out at Scotstoun, scoring a try and being one of the few players to come away with any credit that night.
He missed the game in Pau to attend the funeral, but returned with a typically committed and solid performance against Bristol where a big hit on countryman Thretton Palamo stands out in the memory. I’m sure all fans will join me in passing condolences to Blaine and his family, and will agree he certainly did her proud that night in Glasgow.