So, the season is over thanks to a defeat in Paris, and we now head into a long summer of looking back at the mediocrity of 2016/17, and uncertainty over off-the-field issues. However, the Stade Francais game did give one reason for positivity, and it came in the form of the tactic that played a major part in costing us the win in the play-off.
There was a clear shift in game plan from Danny Wilson and his coaching staff for this game, which there’s no doubt that Cardiff Blues went into as massive underdogs, and that was to go all out for the win.
Attack from everywhere, mix the game up as much as possible and generally use any high risk strategy that was either going to bring huge success, or crash and burn in an ugly heap.
Creating problems for ourselves
From early on in the game it was clear Cardiff had come to play, but it was quickly obvious that this tactic had it’s downsides.
The quick line-out is a perfectly reasonable option, it puts Cardiff on the front foot, but it’s how you take advantage of that which is key. When the ball comes in from Alex Cuthbert, I’d expect Matthew Morgan and Gareth Anscombe to look up, see that the only obvious path through the defence is hardly reachable, and put a kick in.
An early kick, if executed well, can provide the best opportunity for field position, or to get possession back should it be an up-and-under as the Stade back three won’t have recovered shape yet. Instead Anscombe takes the ball to the line, is met by 10 pink shirts, and kicks away to a ready and waiting home back three. Quick ball wasted.
It wasn’t the only time either, as later in the first half it’s Morgan taking the ball on, Stade form the pink wall again and he’s brought down with the majority of the Cardiff support on the wrong side of the home side’s defensive line.
The other switched up area of play was penalties, where twice in the game we opted to take a tap penalty and play, rather than kick the ball into Stade territory and attack from there.
This tactic worked successfully against the Scarlets at the end of last season, but on this occasion just wasn’t on, as Stade outnumbered the Cardiff attack and were able to restrict us to just 10 metres gained, and were able to recover their defensive shape quickly, rather than conceding 30m+ from the kick to touch.
Without learning the lessons, we use exactly the same tactic right at the end of the game. From a forward position where the ball could go easily into the corner, Anscombe takes the tap penalty and spins the ball wide.
The issue is that at the end of a lung busting game, where we are a man down, we are looking up and turning down an easy kick into the corner to try and spin the ball wide through two tired forwards where there is no obvious overlap, as per the second picture.
What made it extra tough on the legs was how the high risk game plan manifested itself in open play through a ‘run from anywhere’ tactic.
Judging by the example of the rest of the season, any ball in or around our own 22 dealt with via an exit strategy. Against Stade though the idea was to run from deep, unfortunately that left us in situations like the one pictured above, whereby Halaholo just ends up punting the ball through to the home side’s covering defenders who can counter-attack with greater ease than they would be able to from a high kick.
The other issue is that when the attack from deep is on, as it is here, it has to be executed well. Unfortunately Anscombe does not find Shingler with the pass, the ball is knocked on and from the resulting scrum Stade score in the corner. The definition of bringing danger upon yourself.
Creating problems for Stade
However, the high risk tactic does sometimes pay off, and when it does it more than likely comes with excellent results.
Willis Halaholo takes the ball on Cardiff’s own five metre line, but acknowledging some space on the short side, he has gaps to attack which he does with ease and sets up quick ball a decent distance outside of the 22 in the end.
The short lineout in a tight area sees Ellis Jenkins release Matthew Morgan and the lack of time Stade have to re-group sees the full-back leading 10 Cardiff players downfield with no sign of the pink wall. A huge yardage gain, and really should be a score coming from that position.
What does lead to a try though is this quick lineout which, although doesn’t lead to any sort of overlap, it does give Alex Cuthbert a one-on-one with space on the outside, which is as good as any overlap. The winger promptly ditches his man and feeds Halaholo who should’ve scored, before Nick Williams did.
I have to say that, although we took an absolute hammering, I struggle to think of a second half I enjoyed more this season than that which we saw in Paris. The Cardiff players were well and truly beaten, but they went down playing rugby and putting 110% effort into the jersey, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
Although the very high risk game plan failed to come off, it did offer plenty of positives to take into the off-season and subsequently 2017/18. Those three breaks created from mixing the game up are certainly something to cling into.
Unfortunately, a long season where Cardiff Blues had actually broken the world record for most box kicks in a season by November* meant this new tactic was a stark change to our playing style, and when it was employed too much it created more problems for us than it did for Stade Francais.
However, there’s a happy balance to be found somewhere between the safety of the exit strategy, and the confidence to back ourselves to go from deep when it’s on. The talent is there, the decision making just isn’t yet, but a summer to develop an understanding in that backline, and there’s no reason why Champions Cup rugby can’t be Cardiff’s again.