European knockout rugby is brutal. It can make or break a player, a coach, or in some cases, a season. Nothing creates excitement quite like it, and nothing can leave a feeling of such emptiness. What a cruel mistress it can be, as Cardiff Blues found out on Saturday evening.
Ever since January there has been the anticipation of a quarter-final trip to Gloucester on the horizon. Nobody would have admitted it from within the Cardiff camp, but everyone linked to the club has had one eye on this opening weekend in April for some time and that reached fever pitch in the build up.
With the Pro12 a lost cause in terms of achieving a top six, any chance of silverware now hinged on the Challenge Cup, and there was cause for cautious optimism. A positive competitive history against Gloucester, as well as an encouraging performance against Leinster last week, meant there was a confidence around The Vale in the build up.
Danny Wilson was able to recall experienced trio Gethin Jenkins, Sam Warburton and Lloyd Williams back into the starting XV, while club stalwart Fa’ao Filise was a sturdy replacement for the injured Anton Peikrishvili. A quick look at the opposition lineup suggested there was no quite disparity in quality. Game on indeed.
The intensity was there from the outset. Kingsholm under the lights with a 10,000+ crowd, never mind the fact it’s a European quarter-final, it’s not a surprise the players were pumped. Big tackles went in, hard yards were made and speed was in abundance as first Gloucester and then Cardiff went on the attack.
It would be the visitors who would make the first impression on the game though, as we retained our temperament in the red zone. Matthew Morgan’s kick and chase forced Tom Marshall into touch on his own 22, and from the lineout Fa’ao Filise, Kris Dacey and Nick Williams set about taking us up to the five metre line.
Lloyd Williams orchestrated the troops superbly against a backdrop of calls for Tomos to have started, allowing Rey Lee-Lo to fall inches short, before Alex Cuthbert did what he does best. Taking the ball in a yard of space with the line in sight he burst through two defenders and touched down under pressure from a third.
Five minutes in and with Steve Shingler’s conversion it was already 0-7. However, just a further five minutes on and the scores were level in fortuitous circumstances. Gloucester tried to get straight back into the game with a lengthy attacking set, but the Cardiff defence held strong on the edge of the 22.
It would be a stray blue foot that broke the resistance, as Richard Hibbard carried and attempted an offload, but as the ball left his hand it struck the boot of Kris Dacey, subsequently bouncing loose to Ross Moriarty. To many of us in the ground it looked like a knock-on, but it was just an unlucky moment.
What wasn’t unlucky was the attempt, if you call it that of Morgan to tackle his Welsh opposition, as he didn’t even allow himself to be brushed aside, instead allowing the flanker to simply carry on through to the try line.
As the half went through the midway point Shingler and Billy Burns traded penalties, before Morgan went from the ridiculous of that attempted tackle, to the sublime of cutting Gloucester’s defence open like a hot knife through butter. Unfortunately Lloyd didn’t have the legs to finish off the move, but the attacking intent was there.
Penalties were traded again, by Shingler and Billy Twelvetrees this time, before the Gloucester centre turned creator for the next score. Cardiff tried to play from deep with a high Gareth Anscombe cross kick but it didn’t come off, and the home side returned fire, winning a penalty for an adjudged block on a chasing player.
The ball went to the corner and off first phase attack the Cherry and Whites got a breakthrough as Twelvetrees was able to shrug off an attempted Shingler tackle and put Tom Marshall over the line, the conversion making the score 20-13 after 25 minutes.
With 15 minutes until the half Gloucester appeared to be in the ascendancy as The Shed got behind their side, but Cardiff worked hard to get back into the game and a high tackle on Kris Dacey resulted in Anscombe kicking us into home territory.
From the first lineout the hosts entered the maul at the side, resulting in another penalty kick to the corner and a lengthy attacking set, which finished with Gloucester being caught offside. A third kick to the corner saw the driving maul halted, but Josh Hohneck was penalised for killing the ball and subsequently sin binned.
It was now imperative that Cardiff converted this opportunity into points, and they duly did so. A driving maul off the fourth lineout didn’t bring any luck, nor did the forwards attempts to drive over from close, but they drew enough defenders in to allow the backs to form up, and Anscombe found Cuthbert on a trademark run from the blindside.
Further advantage was taken of the extra man when Cardiff’s fly half, perhaps unnecessarily, kicked a drop goal when a kick-able penalty was waiting to be awarded. With 10 points secured on the back of the yellow card the half-time score was 20-23, and the away side were more than pleased to go in ahead at the break.
As the second half swung into action though, cracks started to show in Cardiff’s competitiveness. An early, very kick-able, penalty was sent to the corner, but the lineout was comfortable overthrown by Kris Dacey. Then as the away side tried to return to the redzone possession was spilled by Fa’ao Filise.
A Shingler penalty finally put points on the board after half-time, but from there crucial turning points converted a six-point lead into a heavy loss, and it wasn’t pretty to watch in the slightest.
Gloucester got back into the game with a try of Matthew Morgan’s making. After his superb solo break earlier in the game, all the limitations of his game were on show as the full-back kicked the ball straight to his opposite number. As the ball was returned over his head, the former Bristol man attempted to run it back but had the ball knocked away from him as he went into contact.
Anscombe was forced to kick the loose ball dead, and the home side had a five metre attacking scrum. With possession secured Twelvetrees went for the cross-field kick straight to Jonny May. With Cuthbert covering inside it was down to Morgan to stand him up, but unfortunately he went straight past him and the England winger had an easy try.
With Gloucester ahead the noise inside Kingsholm was increasing rapidly. Morgan lost the ball in contact again, before Tomos Williams entered the fray and announced his arrival with two charged down kicks in a minute.
Then the second major turning point. Fa’ao Filise was forced off with an ankle injury, meaning young tighthead Kieron Assiratti came on to make his debut. Straight into a scrum it could not have gone worse for the Wales U20 international as he was driven backwards at a rate of knots and conceded the penalty.
One day we will all look back and laugh at this baptism of fire when Assiratti is winning his first Wales cap, but at this moment in time it has added to Gloucester’s momentum.
From the penalty the home side kicked to the corner and off the lineout there’s a final turning point in the game. Scrum-half Willi Heinz wandered through a huge hole in the defence, being caught before the line but offloading and some quick hands later Tom Marshall was over in the corner, having brushed off a Rey Lee-Lo tackle on the way.
Twenty minutes to go and Cardiff heads were gone. Scrums went against the head, unforced handling errors were being made in the backfield, and more missed tackles in the redzone lead to a Mark Atkinson try. In 12 second half minutes we’d conceded 21 points, and European dreams were left shattered on the Kingsholm pitch.
Cardiff continued to try and play, but everything was forced, and with Morgan hauled off and a big backline switch as a result, there was little fluidity to the play. Tomos Williams made a nice break, but Sam Warburton’s final pass was a way off, before another scrum penalty was conceded.
A very loose pass from Shingler put Matthew Rees under pressure, Gloucester counter rucked and spun the ball wide for Henry Purdy to wrap the game up. A second half scoreline of 26-3 in a performance that really did not do any sort of service to the 1,000 Cardiff fans that made the journey.
How often I’ve written things similar to ‘we must learnt the lessons from this defeat’, ‘there were encouraging signs’ and ‘lack of leadership’. Only so many times can there be any sort of positive spin put on a performance.
I don’t want to take away from the fact that we were the better side for 55 minutes, but that last 25 minute does not appear to be joining us any time soon. There’s a fitness issue for a number of players, a squad depth issue as the bench made little to no impact and a significant gap in the skill sets of certain players.
Game plan A seemed to work well, but plan B was non-existent as our attacking game fell apart late in the game, never mind the almost never-ending onslaught of errors. The senior players seemed unable to pull the squad back together as the tide turned and there can’t have been any messages coming on from the touchline.
The biggest issue that I can see though is a lack of the right mentality. Defensively there’s a mindset issue over first up tackles, while a club culture to fall back on just doesn’t seem to be there. Too often we’ve seen the team go down without a fight this season. It appears to now be an endemic problem.
With four Pro12 games remaining this season there’s a superb opportunity to set the side up for the rest of the season. A depth needs to be developed, and we have a lot of younger players set to leave the academy and fill that gap. Rhun Williams, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams, Corey Domachowski, Rhys Carre, Ethan Lewis and Seb Davies all need exposure to this level of playing.
That may not be pretty at times, and they need to be integrated alongside senior players, not thrown in all together, but we can take losses in the name of future development, not in that name of pointless defeats in dead rubbers.
The European play-offs are still to play for, but honestly I don’t think we’re ready or worthy of them, and there’s a school of thought that says being beaten each week in the Champions Cup could be the worst thing for us.
Short term player exposure is the only aim for now, coaching additions in key areas to follow, and a summer finalising a squad for the third of Danny Wilson’s three year plan, as well as developing a team ethos. Cardiff Rugby requires better than Saturday, the history of rugby at the Arms Park demands it, the fans deserve it.