Friday night saw Cardiff Blues cling on for a 30-24 win over Zebre, despite leading 20-0 at one point. In a thoroughly disappointing second half the home side actually lost 7-21 over the 40 minutes, and were actually in danger of throwing the game altogether as the visitors exerted a lot of pressure.
Much of that pressure was focused around the set piece, with the scrum and the driving maul paying dividends for the Italians as Cardiff could not cope with their power. A lightweight second row and hooker, coupled with no out-and-out scrummaging tighthead, sent the scrum backwards at a rate of knots, while our ability to regularly defend a maul is seriously lacking.
The analysis of that should be left to someone far more qualified than me, Danny Wilson hopefully, as I want to focus on our breakdown work in attack and certain aspects of our defence, all of which contributed to Zebre eventually being able to exert that set piece pressure.
Preparing a platform
Cast your mind back two weeks ago and we were basking in the glory of beating Ospreys at Judegement Day having pretty much dominated them on the way to a first win in 11 games against our West Wales rivals.
Zebre had clearly watched that game carefully though, and really took us to task at the breakdown area, largely starving Cardiff of any opportunity to use quick ball. It was a high risk tactic with players pushing the boundaries of the law on occasion, but it paid off, particularly after half-time, with slow ball and turnovers aplenty.
The tactic at the Millennium Stadium was simple but effective. Carry low and with support, as per below;
Fa’ao Filise carries straight but gets his body below that of Nicky Smith’s, leaving the supporting Ellis Jenkins a simple clearout and quick ball is produced easily. This happened on numerous occasions;
Just one more example and it’s straight out of the textbook. Macauley Cook’s body position is spot on, meaning he gets to ground easily and the two tacklers are sitting ducks for Filise and Jenkins to clear them out.
Fast forward two weeks though, and Zebre came to purposely nullify that tactic. They were clever in the way that they didn’t properly commit to the tackle, allowing the Cardiff player to go to the floor and then attacking the ball before the supporting player could arrive at the breakdown.
In this instance it’s Kris Dacey that trucks the all up, keeps the low body position but is tackled mostly by the first Zebre player. His team-mate makes a slight attempt to assist in the tackle but is mainly waiting for the hooker to go to ground and then he is able to compete for the ball before Josh Navidi can arrive in support.
There follows a battle for the ball on the floor, which Navidi does win, but that extra two seconds of slowing the ball down means Zebre can reform their defensive line and takes any impetus out of the Cardiff attack.
Unfortunately the supporting player didn’t arrive in time to clear out the jackaling player on a few occasions, as exampled above, and Zebre were able to secure turnovers when Cardiff were looking to attack from good positions in the second half.
It’s disappointing that the players weren’t able to adapt the tactic just to move the supporting player a yard closer to the carrier and seal them off before the opposition could attack the ball, as when we retained possession for a few phases we always looked capable of breaking Zebre down. A lesson to be learned ahead of NGD, secure possession first, then try to play.
Ruck guard goes walkabout
Rewind to the start of March and there was this debacle;
I’ve discussed this clip with a number of people and the general consensus is that both Matthew Rees and Nick Williams take a share of the blame here. Under normal circumstances it would be Williams taking the brunt of the flak, but the fact he’s clearly blowing means players should probably have been called in from the outside to cover.
Anyway, with the lessons learned from that I’d have hoped not to have to broach the subject of our ruck fringe defence again, but here we are.
I’ve put the Munster incident and one of the examples from Friday side-by-side here, and in some ways the Zebre still is actually more worrying. The gap in the ruck guard is pretty much the same, with Cook not close enough on one side, but it’s the fact that Tomos Williams is in that position on the near side.
Not an isolated incident either as Zebre make good yards here thanks to the second row taking on Tomos again as the ruck guard. It’s not a criticism of the young scrum-half, his combative style is certainly something which adds to his game, but a defensive leader within the forwards needs to be telling him to move.
No matter how physical and aggressive he is, he’s always going struggle against a carrying forward, and a number of times Zebre’s forwards made easy yards against our poor guard defence.
Zebre made a total of 514 metres which, considering Cardiff dominated possession throughout the first half, is a sad indictment of how they controlled the second half.
Of course, there were bigger factors at play than the two parts of our game focused on above. 24 missed tackles was poor, 13 penalties conceded, the vast majority of which came from the second half scrum, and there were too many simple handling errors that killed momentum in the first half.
However, tackling is an attitude issue. The team need to sit down and address that this week, because one of the reasons we played so well against Ospreys is that we wanted it more, and if we return to that mindset ahead of playing NGD, then we return to a defence that bases itself on strong tackling.
Errors were made as a response to the lack of breakdown success, seeing players attempting to take more risks in attack to try and make a line break and avoid setting up a contact area.
Cardiff will likely need to adopt a high percentage game against NGD. It’ll be a compact pitch on hard ground and the home side will try to strangle us like they did Scarlets at Judgement Day. If we kick well and force the Kingdom of Gwent into allowing us to counter attack then we should get results.
A big week lies ahead for Wilson and his players as we try to head into the play-offs with some momentum, as well as ensuring we do the double over our rivals to the East. Time to really step up and be counted, come on Cardiff!!