Friday night saw Cardiff Blues’ Guinness Pro14 season get off to an underwhelming start thanks to defeat against Edinburgh at the Arms Park.
It signalled a stark fall from the confidence garnered during an unbeaten pre-season, including the beating of English champions Exeter, proving the ever growing disconnect between friendlies and the competitive games.
Leaving the scrum aside, nothing went right for Danny Wilson’s men on Friday, as Edinburgh came and did a real job on us. It was frustrating though that the tactics they used to suppress us should have been easily beatable for players with the qualities ours possess.
I’m going to focus on two major areas though that need addressing though, a lack of attacking awareness, and the impact that a lack of fitness has on our game plan.
Edinburgh arrived at the Arms Park in their first proper game under Richard Cockerill, and their defensive hard work and discipline was typically ‘Cockers’ throughout the encounter, something they clearly worked hard on to nullify our midfield and back three.
They opted for a drift defence, perhaps as a result of young Jarrod Evans taking the reigns of the Cardiff attack at fly-half, putting the onus on us to work through them, rather than around them, knowing our strength lies in the speed we possess out wide.
Cardiff Blues run a pretty simple move, despite it’s somewhat complex appearance, that achieves it’s aim of having Jarrod Evans appear on the wrap around with Aled Summerhill, Matthew Morgan and Alex Cuthbert outside him.
Last season this is what we did a lot successfully, shift the ball around the opposition’s midfield blitz and let the back three run free out wide. However, Edinburgh didn’t let that happen by not committing at all to Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo and drifting to close the space out wide.
When Alex Cuthbert gets the ball he has a total of six defenders in front of him. Zero space to operate, and that happened all game.
So why couldn’t we spot this and adapt our game plan? It’s a good question, because defeating a drift defence is something we’ve done before and successfully, with the players at our disposal.
Halaholo shows and goes, cutting back against the drift and easily finding a gap with the shoulders of the Dragons defenders facing the wrong way.
This, along with using the crash ball tactic every so often, just plants a seed of doubt in the minds of the defenders that the inside shoulder of the drift defence could be vulnerable, and stops them committing to closing down the outside space as quickly.
Instead of this, Cardiff just tried to slightly straighten their running lines out wide, with partial success, but not enough to result in any clean line breaks.
Aled Summerhill runs a more direct line, causing Dougie Fife to commit to tackling him from the position of outside defender, and giving Matthew Morgan a few yards of space to work in.
Overall though, despite the success of the direct play, nobody on the field was able to identify the way through Edinburgh’s defence, and we ended up wasting some excellent attacking positions.
Rey Lee-Lo runs with ball in hand more laterally than forwards, not committing any defenders and decreasing the space for Cuthbert and Welch outside him to work him. On this occasion his run also causes confusion amongst his teammates as to what his intentions are, and Lee-Lo ends up throwing a long pass that isn’t expected and goes to ground.
It’ll be back to the drawing board for the attack and Matt Sherratt this week, but I’m confident this will just be a temporary blip. Early in the season, not much pre-season, Rey Lee-Lo making his first appearance and up against a highly motivated Edinburgh, all this can change on a game-by-game basis.
The Halaholo/Lee-Lo combination will be back firing in no time, especially as they get used to Jarrod Evans inside them. No need to run to the panic stations yet.
Looking lethargic, and not helping ourselves
That point about a shorter pre-season, and players being involved on Friday who didn’t get any friendly game minutes, leads me onto this analysis’ second point.
From early in the second half, and even during the first period for some players, there was an obvious lack of energy and a quickly deteriorating fitness level that greatly impacted on a number of areas in our game.
Rey Lee-Lo comes out of the line and makes an excellent hit, however at this point in the second half you can see the lethargy in his legs, causing a slow return to his feet and facing up for the next defensive phase.
With others similarly suffering at this stage of the game, nobody gets around the corner to cover Lee-Lo, leaving a gap which Shingler struggles to get across to, and then another gap on his inside shoulder for Chris Dean to crash over, with Matthew Morgan having to make ground to cover the overlap out wide.
The reasons for the lack of fitness on the night can come from three possibilities. As mentioned above, we had the players like Lee-Lo and Nick Williams starting despite not having featured at all in pre-season.
Pre-season itself was shorter than usual, with one less game than the vast majority of other northern hemisphere clubs, leaving no player with more than 60 minutes of action in one match, and most only making one appearance.
Finally, with those two things in mind, there was the way we set out to defend and kick.
Our defence on the night was actually very good, with a 93% tackle success rate a vast improvement on last season already, and you could see the Shaun Edwards effect on our defensive setup already.
However, there is a reason that many fans are often critical of Team Wales for ‘beasting’ the international players in terms of fitness, and that is because they need to be at a level higher than at their clubs due to the defensive system.
It’s simple yet effective, typically Edwards. Blitz hard and fast, put the man on the ground and get straight back to your feet. Works well, but saps energy, and with Ellis Jenkins, Sam Warburton and Gethin Jenkins watching the game on television, the lack of a jackal meant Edinburgh could still generate quick ball.
There was little respite in the kicking game, thanks in part due to some really poor kick choices, and also an increasingly tired chase as the game went on.
Two long kicks in the first two clips are demoralising for the players as the ball is other returned back with interest or kicked straight back, while the third clip is the most disappointing of all coming from a free kick that is put straight up and not followed up with any committed chase.
Something we overused, but become effective with as a result, the high kick chased hard by the winger, was not seen at all on Friday, and in the end it just seemed the idea was kick the ball as far as possible and hope for the best. Not a great idea when the opposition full-back is playing so well.
However, the biggest example of Cardiff’s lack of fitness came at the attacking breakdown. Altogether we conceded 17 turnovers against Edinburgh, with the majority of these being penalties given away for holding on at the ruck.
These were as a result of not tracking back when the opposition kicked fast enough…
Not tracking ball carriers making good metres, leaving them isolated up the field…
And trying to play too expansively, leaving wide players isolated on the flanks while the forwards keep to the centre of the pitch…
Many fans were questioning the desire of the players to hit rucks, and also the wisdom of setting up the forwards in a 2-4-2 formation across the pitch, leaving Seb Davies, Damian Welch, Josh Navidi and Josh Turnbull on the flanks.
However, no matter whether a player wants to hit every ruck in the game, or if they operate in the centre of the field or on the wings, if they do not have the energy in their legs to get to the breakdown then they won’t make it.
This hurt us a lot on Friday, giving away possession in defensive positions such as those above, and even by the end of the game in good central attacking areas.
That lack of pre-season and meaningful game time catching up with the players late on, causing them to play catch-up with their obviously fitter looking opposition.
This may all seem somewhat doom and gloom after a thoroughly disappointing defeat, however within the negativity I hope you see the light in the fact that the above issues are eminently fixable.
Attacking-wise we have the players with the ability to kick the offence into life, it may take another week or two, but Jarrod Evans will become more comfortable in the 10 jersey, while Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo can click again with more game time together.
In terms of the fitness I’ve no doubt the players will be working hard to rectify this issue, and it will come as the games arrive thick and fast.
Everyone is aware of the challenges the fixture list presents over the next few weeks, with three away games in Ireland and a home match against Glasgow. These aren’t encounters that will allow us to see huge leaps forward.
However, if Cardiff Blues can slowly work to fix things over the next couple of games, righting certain wrongs and further improving on the positive aspects of performances, the season can still be a success. May is still a long time in the future after all. Come on Cardiff!!