Cardiff Blues suffered an extremely disappointing home defeat to Connacht as pre-game hopes of sixth place seemed far out of view after a lacklustre performance. 4,300 hardy souls were treated to a showing not worthy of the freezing temperatures and there will have to be much self evaluation at The Vale Resort this week as the players looked positively disinterested at times.
In the build up to the Pro12’s return following time off for Europe and Anglo-Welsh there was a definite positivity about our chances in this block of fixtures while the Six Nations is on. International call-ups had not affected us as much as normal, players were returning from injury and the first team were on the back of two wins to complete the Challenge Cup pool stages, including a bonus-point win over Bristol.
Danny Wilson was able to select a strong side, with internationals Rhys Gill, Kris Dacey and Anton Peikrishvili starting in the front row, Nick Williams at eight, Wales half-back duo Lloyd Williams and Gareth Anscombe, and international released pair Rhun Williams and Blaine Scully in the back three.
However, as has happened a worringly high amount of times this season, there was a last-minute change to the advertised XV as Steve Shingler withdrew due to a neck injury and was replaced in the starting line-up by Willis Halaholo, with Garyn Smith stepping up to the bench.
The opening 10 minutes of the game was a real midfield battle with neither team really making any significant yards. Connacht were the first with possession and got a chance to open the scoring after Anton Peikrishvili was penalised for not rolling away, but John Cooney sliced his kick. Cardiff then had some possession time, and Gareth Anscombe did take advantage of a penalty to put the home side ahead.
An early concern was the scrum as the Cardiff pack appeared to be on wheels, such was the speed they were going backwards, but Anscombe secured some good territory with a kick into the Connacht 22. The away side attempted to gain some ground before exiting, however Rhys Gill managed to rip the ball from Tom McCartney’s arms only for the ball to bounce forward off Macauley Cook as it went loose.
Connacht managed to clear their lines at the second time of asking, but Jake Heenan gave up the penalty after Matthew Morgan’s half-break on the counter attack and Anscombe took advantage once again for a 6-0 lead.
It was a struggle for Cardiff though, who were edging possession, but being well and truly beaten at the breakdown as our pack failed to match the workrate and effectiveness at the breakdown of the Connacht back row. Instead it was left to Macauley Cook stealing lineouts and Rey Lee-Lo jackaling to secure turnovers.
From the penalty Anscombe got us up into the Connacht half, and after a few phases there was finally some attacking impetus as three forwards ran dummy lines leaving Willis Halaholo some space in the outside centre position, where he appears more effective, to go on a mazy run breaking five tackles and putting Cardiff inside the five metre line.
Phases came and went as the forwards knocked on the door but the Irish side defended resolutely until Cook went within inches as carried between defenders, allowing Nick Williams to do what he does best and power over from a yard. Anscombe kicked the conversion and despite a slow start Cardiff were up 13-0 after half an hour.
It wouldn’t last though, as ill-discipline started to de-rail the home side. First Cook gave away a penalty for a neck roll before Josh Navidi was harshly called up for using hands in the ruck when it appeared the ball was loose. In the end it gave Connacht the chance to base themselves in our 22 for the first time, and they took advantage.
The Cardiff blitz defence had looked pretty solid for most of the first half as Connacht were restricted to few yards gained before errors coughed up possession as they wisely avoided kicking the ball away for Matthew Morgan to counter attack as much as possible.
The kicks they did select were well thought out, and one such was a cross-field effort over the head of Rhun Williams to Niyi Adeolokun who put them on the front foot. The pressure was kept up until McCartney broke the tackle of Anscombe and Jarrad Hoeata to camp Connacht on the try line. The scramble defence sucked in defenders, allowing the visitors to go wide where Matt Healy was all on his own in acres of space for a simple run-in.
A right kick in the teeth just before half-time, but not the end of the world as we were still the better side of the first half, with a 13-7 lead and just a few tweaks needed over the break. A lift in intensity, pace and directness of attack should’ve brought rewards, while the defence was functioning well as Connacht played a very basic style of quick back play. Nothing to worry about, or so I thought.
As the second period got underway two handling errors from Nick Williams in as many minutes gave Connacht good field position, and when Cardiff infringed at the under pressure scrum Cooney took advantage to close the gap between the sides.
Cardiff bit back though, and looked good for the first time in the game over a whole attacking set. Navidi made the initial midfield break to make it to the 22 before Anscombe’s kick in behind was scrambled away. He returned it with interest before Rey Lee-Lo freed Rhun Williams on the left wing but he was stopped short, and then Connacht infringed to give Anscombe a shot at the posts.
Unfortunately the fly-half’s attempt cannoned off the inside of the upright as he kicked into the wind, and that wasn’t to be his only mistake as shortly after he squandered a good penalty position just inside the Connacht half by choosing to take a tap-and-go when lining up the kick to touch and eventually losing about 15 yards.
The ball was eventually turned back to Connacht, who now started to turn the tide in their favour, John Cooney breaking tackles to enter the Cardiff 22 but the dominance was stopped briefly by a Nick Williams turnover, only for referee Marius Mitrea to step in and penalise Hoeata for holding on despite Dennis Buckley being clearly off his feet.
Cooney levelled the scores and with 25 minutes played of the second half the match was becoming one way traffic, with 78% of the action taking place in Cardiff’s half since the break, and soon it was back there as first Anscombe’s up-and-under was poorly executed, and then Lloyd Williams knocked on from scrappy lineout ball.
Connacht sensed blood against an increasingly disorganised looking Cardiff and went in for the kill as Tiernan O’Halloran made a break before finding Adeolokun to score, but the final pass was forward. There was then an interesting piece of play from the scrum as the home side were under pressure, as they had been all game, before Mitrea reset it, at which point Matthew Rees entered the fray and immediately a Cardiff penalty was secured.
It’s a tough one for Danny Wilson as Kris Dacey offers so much around the field, making the most carries out of anyone on the field, but really he should have been withdrawn sooner than 70 minutes as it was blatantly obvious that the scrum deficiency was suffocating us early on.
The penalty should have been a basis to build an attack off as the game crept into the final 10 minutes with the scores level, but inexplicably both Lloyd Williams and Tomos Williams continued to kick the ball away from solid attacking bases just inside the Cardiff half, and to make it worse the kicks were not close to being competitive.
So back came Connacht, and Heenan wandered through a huge gap in the inside defence to take the visitors into the red zone. They battered on the door but Cardiff held firm and eventually the ball was spilled forwards by Healy.
The scrum held firm, but Tomos Williams again cleared aimlessly and O’Halloran returned with interested to the edge of the 22. Substitute Thomas Farrell was the next to gain ground as he stepped inside Rey Lee-Lo and Rhys Gill fell off the tackle. Dave Heffernan followed up to take Connacht to the red zone, before Jack Carty had the chance to kick a winning drop goal but managed to miss when it seemed impossible to do so from right in front of the posts.
The 22 drop-out was kicked long by Anscombe, a fair enough decision so as not to risk giving possession away again inside the Cardiff half, but then when Caolin Blade was racing through a parted defence back towards our try line from the very first phase with two minutes left on the clock, there was a realisation that things were soon to go from bad to worse.
It came to O’Halloran in the end to step onto his right foot and kick the snapshot drop goal that gave Connacht the lead, and when from the restart Cardiff recovered possession, there was a sense of inevitability that Connacht’s back row domination would secure the win as John Muldoon won the penalty with the unmovable jackal.
Craig Ronaldson extended the winning margin with the last kick of the game and Cardiff’s embarrassment was complete. A performance devoid of desire to win, of pride in the jersey and passion.
The second half performance was the worse I’ve witnessed at the Arms Park since we allowed Zebre their first Pro12 win. 40 minutes where we simply never looked like getting across the line at any point. Kicking the ball away, handling errors and lack of work rate to support team-mates is quite rightly punished, and on the day Connacht deserved their win.
Danny Wilson has a long week ahead, analysing mainly why we looked so flat and unimaginative in attack. Plenty will focus on the defending at the end, where missed tackles cost us dear, but when you are without possession for quite as long as Cardiff were in the second half, and pinned back in your own half for basically the entire period, it’s only a matter of time that a frailty will appear.
Stats-wise the attacking doesn’t look too bad. 363 metres made, 135 carries, five line breaks, 25 defenders beaten. All pretty decent, but the one issue I have is just six offloads. There was so many times when the opportunity arose to offload, but support runners were not there and it stops half-breaks turning into really dangerous attacks.
Mix that in with a lack of intensity when attacking, no dummy runners or direct runners, and you get our problems in a nutshell. Kick accurately rather than just as far as you can, essentially have an effective game plan. Connacht did their home work and did a job on us, Cardiff fell apart early and stood no chance of recovering.
The big problem then is that once the tide started turning there was no leadership on that pitch. So many times in the second half there were breaks in play and players stood in groups talking, but nobody seemed to be taking control, leading the conversations or banging any heads together. Lloyd Williams was captain but he needs a Sam Warburton-esque intervention and to just focus on himself.
We do have the players capable of being that leading figure. Matthew Rees has captained Wales, Jarrad Hoeata has played for New Zealand, Nick Williams is about as experienced as they get and Blaine Scully captains USA, it’s for them to step up and marshal the younger lads, and the less experienced, that’s where games are won and lost.
It’s for the players now to respond in training this week, and the coaches to ensure they are doing that while focusing on the right parts of our game. That performance was not reflective of the undoubted quality in the side, and they must ensure it is a one-off. Next week we welcome Treviso to the Arms Park, and nothing less than a bonus point win will do.
I understand the tone of this report has been somewhat defeatist, and maybe at times it has been pretty reactionary, but as I sit here still cold and tired after standing on the terrace earlier it’s not easy to be subjective. However, what I would say is that this isn’t a crisis. Yes, the performance today was unacceptable, but the players and management will know that and I fully expect Sunday to be an isolated incident. Onto next week, come on Cardiff!!