Although February is the shortest month in the calendar year, it can often feel like the longest for fans of professional club rugby as the Six Nations swings into action, causing teams to lose their best players, the local media to go into Team Wales overdrive, and the MASSIVE rugby fans who only appear at this time of year to come out of the woodwork.
However, and this may be a surprise to some people, life goes on at the Cardiff Blues and as such, here’s a round-up of the month of February on and off the pitch.
On The Pitch
February started with the completion of the Anglo-Welsh Cup group stages and the visit of Worcester to the Arms Park. Despite it being a dead rubber for us, having already been knocked out of the tournament, acting head coach Richard Hodges named a strong looking line-up, mixing five senior players with a number of young professionals and three senior academy players.
The game itself was an end-to-end affair, a really excellent game for the neutral although it did seem defending was optional at times. The first half was an even affair until the 20th minute, when Cam Dolan’s early try was blown out of the water by four tries in 15 minutes from the visitors. A 17-36 scoreline at the break certainly wasn’t ideal.
Things picked up for Cardiff in the second half though, as Tomos Williams got us off to flyer, before it became the Jarrod Evans show, setting up Harri Millard for a try before his solo score was the moment of the day, chipping over the defence and collecting for himself. Although he did throw an interception, there were flashes of real potential from the young fly-half.
At full-time the scoreboard showed 38-53, but a 21-17 second half win was an encouragement and hopefully will be a learning curve for the management that, although the Anglo-Welsh Cup is rightly seen as a development tournament, it needs a sprinkling of senior players to hold the youngsters together.
The following week the Pro12 returned after a six week hiatus, with Danny Wilson putting pressure on the players to perform thanks to the knowledge that the upcoming block of fixtures could well define the league season.
With players returning to fitness, Wilson was able to name a strong starting XV for the arrival of Connacht at CAP, with Nick Williams and Gareth Anscombe both starting, although Steve Shingler was a late withdrawal from the centre.
Unfortunately the game was a huge disappointment. Cardiff started slowly but were still able to eek out a 13-0 lead thanks to the boot of Anscombe and a try from Big Nick, but conceding on the stroke of half-time was certainly not ideal.
The second half was downright poor, as the players lacked intensity, accuracy, quality and, most frustratingly, passion. Connacht chipped away by winning penalties, forcing errors and maintaining a strong defensive line. Cardiff on the other hand struggled at the attacking breakdown and never looked like scoring after half-time.
Connacht kept the scoreboard ticking over, and thanks to a scruffy drop goal and a late penalty, they took a 13-19 win back to Ireland. Following that Danny Wilson came out and said that the team now needed three wins from the next three games and set about bringing back Blaine Scully, Alex Cuthbert, Fa’ao Filise, George Earle and Macauley Cook into the starting line-up.
Next up was Treviso at home, some may say the perfect fixture to bounce back from a loss, and when Nick Williams crashed over after just three minutes that seemed to be accurate, but Cardiff took their foot off the pedal and the lacklustre tendencies of the previous week’s second half took hold. Only the realisation that they may go in behind against an Italian side at half-time sparked a late Blaine Scully try.
Fortunately the second half was vastly improved, and basically became the Matthew Morgan and Alex Cuthbert show as one or both either set up or scored five of the six tries in the second period to secure a comfortable 57-20 bonus point win.
A definite confidence booster, first half aside, and with Wilson making just two changes to the XV there was finally some continuity to a massively injury hit squad. Tom James finally returned to the starting lineup, while Anton Peikrishvili was recalled at tighthead for a trip to Edinburgh.
The Georgian did not have a happy start to the game, though, as he found himself sin-binned early on for bringing down a maul, and Edinburgh promptly took advantage to go ahead. Steve Shingler’s boot kept Cardiff in touch, despite referee David Wilkinson’s best attempts as he also sent Jarrad Hoeata for 10 minutes, as half-time saw the score at 7-6.
Unfortunately the yellow cards had taken away any chance of using the wind in the first half, which Edinburgh duly did at the start of the second period with two Rory Scholes tries in 10 minutes making the scores 17-6 with 20 minutes to go.
Weirdly though, Edinburgh turned down any chance to really kick on, opting for kicks at goal from penalties which they duly missed, instead of utilising their dominant driving maul. Cardiff on the other hand were adapting to the conditions and soon were back in the game.
Playing off nine was paying dividends, and when Lloyd went sniping before offloading to Jarrad Hoeata it marked a foray into opposition territory for the first time in the half. Nick Williams was on hand to support the second row and he offloaded to Sion Bennett to get Cardiff back in the game, before Lloyd scored the most fortuitous of fortuitous tries.
Suddenly we were 17-18 ahead, but with Edinbrugh getting possession back in the 76th minute there was an ominous feel. However, nobody expected what was going to happen next as Cardiff mounted a 37 phase defensive set, missing just one tackle, giving up no metres and not allowing any penalties to be given away.
Eventually the home side spilled possession and after a monster defensive effort an away win was snatched in Scotland. The month ended with on a real high note, unfortunately that didn’t translate into March, but little steps after the abomination that was the Connacht game, and plenty of players still to welcome back from injury.
Off The Pitch
It was a busy month away from the Arms Park and in the management offices as firstly there was news of two signings with Jack Roberts arriving from Leicester, and Damian Welch joining from Exeter. Both good, but very different signings, but they should certainly add to the squad for next season in their own way.
Two players also signed new contracts, with academy products Jarrod Evans and Garyn Smith committing to the next few years. It’s certainly pleasing to see homegrown young players staying on at the club, and two lads with great potential at that, hopefully they can now kick on to become regulars in the starting XV over the next year or two.
While those players were signing or staying, there was two departure announcements as Cory Allen’s move to Ospreys was confirmed, while skills coach Paul John revealed he was off to Hong Kong 7s come the end of the season. Both men will stay in their roles until May, and I wish them well in their futures after that.
The only other playing linked off field news during February came in the form of international call-ups, with Sam Warburton and Alex Cuthbert involved with Wales, Blaine Scully and Cam Dolan spending time with USA and a whole host of academy youngsters gaining U20 Six Nations experience, a full update of which will follow separately.
Player of the Month
Casting the Anglo-Welsh Cup aside as it was a development team, and the Connacht performance as it was dreadful, there’s just two games to pick a PotM from for February. Matthew Morgan was impressive but had his defensive moments, while it was good to see Alex Cuthbert enjoying his rugby.
For me though, February’s Player of the Month is Sion Bennett, for coming in and making a real difference to the side in his carrying and defence, as well as bagging two tries. Of course he’s playing for a contract, but if he keeps this level up he may well get them, and then it’s up to him to maintain his form.