Rugby finally returns as Cardiff Blues travel to Stade Francais for the semi-final of the Champions Cup play-off. A mammoth task lies ahead to secure a win in Paris, but there was some encouraging aspects from the last game against Newport Gwent Dragons to work on.
After a very weak showing against Zebre in the last home game of the season there was a big emphasis on the scrum in Caerphilly, and the old stager Matthew Rees really stepped to the fore.
Two huge efforts from the pack causing the Dragons to either collapse or run backwards and each resulting in penalties, and it wasn’t just on our ball either…
Big disruption caused and it’s such a boost to the whole team to know that the scrum is dominant, but more than that it puts real pressure on Dragons to avoid scrums and not make errors when they have possession.
Matthew Rees was the real anchor in the scrum, ably supported by a second row that out-weighed their opponents which always makes a difference. The really pleasing aspect though was that even with Corey Domachowski and Kieron Assiratti, both aged under 21, in the front row the scrum continued to drive forward.
This was their first scrum after Assiratti came on and, for him personally after a tough senior baptism in Gloucester, this was a massive confidence booster to drive Dragons pack backwards and win the penalty. The future is bright in that respect, we just need Matthew Rees to play forever now.
Stade Francais will be a whole new kettle of fish in Paris, as their Challenge Cup set piece domination showed. Cardiff’s pack will need to be very clever in terms of not using their weight too early, as we’ve been guilty of recently, and scrummaging as a pack rather than hitting and chasing.
Despite the scrum dominance for Cardiff at Caerphilly, there was little decisiveness behind the pack…
The big problem with our performance against NGD was that we posed very little danger in attack. In fact, we rather stumbled to victory as a result of the scrum dominance, Gareth Anscombe’s boot and the generally poor quality of the opposition.
We managed to create just three clean breaks in the 80 minutes, scoring only two tries and only just carrying for 300 metres. So why was that? Well it comes down to adapting to the type of defence that the opposition are going to use.
Cardiff came with the intention to utilise the full width of a very wide Caerphilly pitch. Nothing wrong with that when you have the likes of Rey Lee-Lo, Matthew Morgan and Rhun Williams ready to use their pace on the flanks, but not if they have no space to work in.
Two video clip examples of Matthew Morgan and Rhun Williams being crowded out by the Dragons defence, and here’s why this happened on more than two occasions in a bit more detail.
Dragons utilised a very simple drift defence system against Cardiff, and it worked very successfully in that it stopped us moving the ball outside them at any point in the match.
The first picture shows the overlap as it should have been, but by the time the ball has been shifted sideways down the line, the home side are in place to cover Morgan and Sion Bennett.
Once again we see plenty of numbers out wide, but a lack of straight line running and committing of defenders, as Cardiff try to move the ball out wide as quickly as possible, means that Rhun Williams receives possession under close watch from a defender in just a yard of space.
Why did Dragons have so much more success in the first half then? Well Cardiff ran with a blitz style defence in Caerphilly, and the home side played us brilliantly.
Dragons used the speed of the Cardiff defensive line against us, shifting the ball beyond the initial blitz quickly and sending us into scramble defence before they’d even made a line break.
As you can see in these pictures they get Tyler Morgan outside of Willis Halaholo on the outside blitz, meaning Rhun Williams and Rey Lee-Lo have to come inside to stop him breaking and Pat Howard has plenty of space to travel up to the Cardiff 10m line.
The Blues did at one point work out how to bypass the Dragons defence, and it was in the form of Willis Halaholo.
What he does is take the ball to the defensive line and use the Dragons drift defence against them, forcing them to commit to tackles and creating space as a result.
You can see from above that Halaholo running straight and then stepping back inside means the drift defence have moved past him, he catches T Rhys Thomas who has his shoulders facing completely the wrong way and the space created behind him is more than enough to ghost through and score a vital try.
Unfortunately this direct style of attacking was rarely utilised again, underlining a persistent problem amongst the Cardiff ranks this season in that there has been a lack of adaptability on the pitch, stemming from a lack of leadership amongst an injury affected group of senior players.
The big test of a number of squad players ahead of next year will be to improve their rugby knowledge, but ahead of the Paris trip the wise move would just be to go back to basics. The same attacking simplicity that served us so well against Ospreys.
Carry cleverly for quick ball, rather than yards. Run direct and at pace, and kicking will have to be spot on. It won’t be easy, as we’ll likely give up dominance up front, but if we can use any possession we do have wisely and be on top counter attacking form then we could cause some problems.
Then it will all come down to our defence. Oh dear…