Cardiff Blues suffered a defeat to Pro12 high flyers Munster at the Arms Park in a performance that almost perfectly summed up our season. Even the cold, wet and windy conditions seemed to be joining in to mock how 2016/17 has been as a fan.
Danny Wilson was forced into a number of changes from the side which stole victory against Edinburgh last week, with an injury resulting in Corey Domachowski replacing Rhys Gill at tighthead, while the fit again Josh Navidi started ahead of Sion Bennett on the openside.
A real source of frustration even before kick-off came in the form of Team Wales, not for the first time this season. Although nobody would expect Sam Warburton to be released, for Alex Cuthbert, Scott Andrews and Kris Dacey to be retained on the basis that they would be tackle bag holding on Sunday morning was disappointing at best.
Taking their places were Aled Summerhill, Fa’ao Filise and Matthew Rees, as Blaine Scully failed a late fitness test to make his return to the matchday squad, Rhun Williams took a spot on the bench as a result.
The game kicked off, after a minute’s silence for women’s player Elli Norkett, with the home side benefitting from the wind in the opening period, which blew from the river end of the North Stand down towards the clubhouse, while the heavens opened just before Gareth Anscombe got the game underway.
It was clear from the off that the weather would play a big part in proceedings, with Munster scrum-half Duncan Williams’ kick being blown back towards him, before Matthew Rees’ lineout throw was taken off course. There was time for a quick Nick Williams snipe down the blindside from the back of a scrum though as Cardiff looked to set the tone early on.
Munster were the first to have any sort of real attack however, as Matthew Morgan failed to collect a high kick before Macauley Cook made a high tackle to allow the visitors a chance to get into our 22, but solid defence, including two huge hits from number eight Williams, kept them at bay.
Opportunities to open the scoring were there for each side as Ian Keatley and Steve Shingler both missed penalties, before Tom James was released by a beautiful inside pass from Willis Halaholo, only for the winger to totally mistime the final pass to Lloyd Williams and the Cardiff captain was tackled easily.
With the wind blowing into their faces the visitors failed to clear their lines effectively allowing Cardiff to dominate territory in the opening 20 minutes, but handling errors from George Earle and Macauley Cook stunted any momentum, as did two chip kicks from Anscombe going either long or straight into the full-back’s hands.
There were still positives for the hosts though as Tom James made a second line break of the match, although was stopped with a big hit from former Arms Park favourite Robin Copeland, as well as Ian Keatley going off for Munster meant they were forced to play inside centre Rory Scannell at 10.
Only on 22 minutes was the deadlock finally broken by Shingler off the tee, after Earle was tackled in the air, however Scannell immediately hit back when Anton Peikrishvili was penalised at the scrum.
Cardiff should really have been dominating and looking to take advantage of the wind at their backs, but little errors across the pitch, from handling to attacking breakdowns, meant they could not keep the visitors under any sort of pressure, and in fact it was Munster who had a further good opportunity to score only for Ronan O’Mahony to run into his own man just ten metres out from the try line.
It would take a bit of luck to finally get across the line and that almost came on the half-hour mark as Andrew Conway attempted to counter-attack from deep, but his chip kick was met on the volley by Lloyd Williams and the scrum-half was able to collect the ball and head for the corner, but was stopped by an excellent cover tackle from opposite number, and namesake, Duncan.
Consolation came from the boot of Shingler as Munster infringed when forming a driving maul, before Scannell missed the chance to keep the scores level by pushing his penalty wide.
The half ended in the frustrating manner that it had played out in really, as first Anscombe’s kick was charged down, before he missed touch on a penalty thanks to some incredible acrobatics from Conway. The referee didn’t help as he inexplicably awarded Munster a scrum for a mystery ‘knock-on’, before Cook secured a turnover and Lloyd decided enough was enough.
A massively frustrating half which should have resulted in a much clearer lead, but simple errors and poor decisions from good attacking positions meant that it was just a three point advantage going into the second period and 40 minutes of the weather in our faces.
For the first five minutes it didn’t seem to be a huge issue, as even though Duncan Williams made a dangerous break it was seen off quite comfortably before we set up a few midfield phases. However Matthew Rees soon returned us to handling errors and with Munster starting to build pressure, Willis Halaholo committed a recklessly dangerous high tackle and rightly saw yellow.
At this point I’m sure I wasn’t the only Cardiff fan fearing the worst, with a strong looking visiting side playing with a man advantage and benefitting from the conditions, it was setup for the Irish team to run wild.
However, against the run of play, and largely thanks to Munster playing without a recognised fly-half, the home side grabbed a chance. Duncan Williams threw a loose pass, which missed the slipping Darren Sweetman and only just made the deep standing Scannell who flicked the ball out wide to be intercepted by Aled Summerhill, with the winger speeding away for a 50 metre try.
The 10 point lead looked good and hopefully was a springboard to see out the rest of the sin bin period, but actually it worked out hindering us more than anything. Our game became frightened, all short forward drives and lengthy box kicks with an uncommitted chase. Pressure was invited and soon the cracks showed.
A clever offload game and some quick hands in midfield gave Munster impetus, while wearing out our forwards at the same time, which resulted in a lapse of concentration with serious consequences. An attacking ruck was set up, Matthew Rees moved away from first guard and called Nick Williams across, but the big number eight was clearly puffing and left a huge gap for Francis Saili to wander straight through and score under the posts.
The tide was turning and Cardiff were not adapting to the game at all. Despite returning to the full compliment of players we were still playing as if there were only 14 men on the pitch, and the handling mistakes were still rife. Munster maintained field position and Saili put a kick in behind which was not fully covered by Matthew Morgan, but fortunately Conway could not get the ball down.
Cardiff were massively struggling and the game was rapidly becoming a foregone conclusion, despite the home side still retaining the lead. Attacking ball was painfully slow as there was an avoidance of committing any players to the breakdown so as to leave forwards free to just tuck the ball up their jumpers. No metres were made and any time possession did try to go wide it was defeated by a simple Munster midfield line blitz.
Inevitably this would eventually result in handling errors or a lengthy kick away straight back to the opposition, who kept us pinned inside out own half for the vast majority of the second half. Defensive phases came and went before Munster either broke through or Cardiff infringed, the latter of which allowed Scannell to draw the scores level on 67 minutes.
At this point we required our bench, but the big hit on injuries and international call-ups meant the options just weren’t there. Young players or recently drafted in cover was the majority of the choices, with just Kirby Myhill, James Down and Tomos Williams amongst the replacements who would even come close to challenging for a matchday squad when all are fully fit.
In fairness to the players it was really difficult to criticise their commitment to the cause. Some of the shifts being put in were immense, the scrum was dominant, and on the whole the defensive effort was massive, but when the ball is continually kicked straight back to Munster after being won back well, it is demoralising at the best of times, and inside the last 10 minutes big cracks started to show.
From one phase the line was all wrong as the blindside became over-stocked and Dave O’Callaghan found space on the wing. He carried up to the edge of the 22, and even though the Cardiff defence recovered well to stop any further progress, Scannell wisely took the decision to kick the drop goal.
It wasn’t the cleanest strike, but Munster were getting the breaks they deserved. It felt like nothing was going Cardiff’s way, as any bounces went the wrong way or loose passes didn’t stick, but you make your own luck by trying to play and making things happen. That was partly the downfall.
Just under five minutes left and behind for the first time in the game, Cardiff really needed to start playing, so what did they do? Threw a loose pass and then fell foul of a handling error. Why change the habit of 80 minutes?
Munster promptly turned the ball over after Garyn Smith had fumbled Steve Shingler’s hospital pass and replacement flanker Conor Oliver took advantage of nobody being home on the fringe defence again for the easiest try of his career. Game over.
Scannell kicked the conversion for a 13-23 scoreline, and just to add to the frustration of Cardiff fans, we then had to watch the team actually play some rugby for the first time in the game and successfully make the Munster 22, only for the dream of the bonus point to be taken away as slow passing in the midfield and the defensive blitz forced the ball to ground and the referee to signal full-time.
A defeat to signal the end of the Six Nations set of Pro12 fixtures, and also to make top six qualification nigh on impossible with our next three league games being trips to Leinster and Ulster before meeting the Ospreys at Judgement Day.
There will no doubt be a tendency to overreact after this defeat in some quarters, I’m sure people will be branding the coaches a failure, the players sub-standard or the whole club in crisis. It is difficult to argue that all is well at the moment, but to say that Cardiff Blues are in extreme measures is a touch over the top.
For me there appears to be an issue with the players being able to react effectively to what’s in front of them, while in attack we are massively lacking quick ball as the forwards look disorganised while the backs are massively telegraphed in their ideas. It’s becoming clear that an addition to the coaching staff may well be the most important signing of the summer.
Of course the injuries haven’t helped in terms of taking out a number of key players, 12 players who featured in the reverse fixture victory were missing on Saturday, but what they have done is exposed a vulnerable underbelly to the side, and that is something that will have to be worked on ahead of next season.
For now though there is still the challenge of confirming a spot in the end of season Champions Cup play-off fixtures, as well as the Challenge Cup knockout rounds to come. I’d quite like to see a few of the younger players given a go as the season draws to a close, and with plenty still to play for, the team need our support now more than ever.