Cardiff Blues suffered their first defeat of the 2017/18 European Challenge Cup in embarrassing fashion as they failed to register a score against Sale Sharks on Saturday afternoon.
After impressive victories over Lyon and Toulouse in rounds one and two, there was a tangible positivity around the Cardiff Blues over Challenge Cup chances this year ahead of facing a Sale side who’s priority is clearly the Aviva Premiership.
Injuries had caused a selection headache in some areas for Danny Wilson as he had to opt for young wingers Aled Summerhill and Owen Lane, as well as a back row of part-time blindside Seb Davies and makeshift openside Josh Turnbull.
There was further matchday squad issues when Blaine Scully withdrew from the bench late on and Lewis Jones was the travelling reserve, leaving three scrum-halves in the 23.
What was to follow, however, can’t be excused in any way on the list of unavailable players, nor the weather, which was freezing cold and snowing in parts.
Now this match report will take a slightly different flavour from normal, largely due to the fact that the 80 minutes between the referee’s first whistle and last whistle provided such little action. Instead, this will be a look at the wider impact of what was witnessed on Saturday.
From the very beginning of the encounter it was clear to me that Cardiff Blues would not win the game. Worse than that, it seemed like we had no intention of doing so. Negative rugby played in a lacklustre manner is a recipe for disaster, and so it proved.
When explaining the game plan to those who were not at the AJ Bell Stadium, the operative word would be ‘kick’. That in itself is not a bad thing. We are often told how New Zealand kick more than most and they are the best team in the World.
Of course they kick with a purpose. Kick for field position, or kick to compete. If you’re going for territory then it’s long and into space, crucially with an effective kick chase. If the ball is going up to compete it needs height and to land close to a sixpence, with two lead chasers.
Unfortunately the Cardiff game plan stopped at ‘kick’. Some went long and the kick chase was half-arsed at best. Others went high without any competition, a single chasing player being easily blocked by opposition forwards or on more than one occasion simply running past the receiving Sale Sharks player.
There were moments when we tried to keep the ball in hand, however they were painfully slow and narrow. Some good first phase ball offered up by an effective lineout option to Seb Davies at the back in midfield was wasted by a restrictive attacking game that often sent Rey Lee-Lo head first into an expectant Sale defence.
From there it was two short driving phases and then either a Lloyd Williams box kick or Gareth Anscombe dropping into the pocket. Both resulted in the same outcomes, kicking possession away for free and inviting pressure back onto ourselves.
At this point I should point out that there was very little danger from Sale for most of the game. A second string side was put out from the English side who were largely unimpressive although, clutching at straws from a Cardiff perspective, they did come up against a well organised Blues defensive system.
However, due to the amount of time spent without the ball, there was always likely to be infringements, and Sale took advantage of three to go 9-0 up at half-time thanks to the boot of American fly-half AJ McGinty.
That’s not to say Cardiff Blues didn’t have a chance to get on the board. A very kickable penalty was turned down shortly after Sale went 3-0 ahead, with Anscombe kicking us into the corner. The lineout was far too easy to read though, and a Sharks gamble paid off as they stole possession.
In the end the highlight of the half was Owen Lane chasing down Rohan Janse van Rensburg despite a 10-yard head start and making a try saving double tackle, the second of which was with the assistance of Lloyd. A rare moment of good, honest hard work, and from the youngest player in the squad making his European debut.
Despite the hope that half-time would bring a rocket up the rear, so to speak, there was very little to shout home about in the second period. Little or no change to the playing style eventually brought about our downfall.
When making 30+ kicks in a game, the balance of probabilities suggests one will get charged down at some point, and so it proved. Lloyd Williams’ box was blocked from within the Cardiff Blues 22 and opposite number Will Cliff touched down.
With 20 minutes to go this suddenly resulted in a realisation from the away team that we did, in fact, have to score points to get anything out of the game. Unfortunately, after an hour of negative mindset, to switch to any sort of attack would prove difficult.
A return to the early season woes that befall running sideways across a defence rather than committing it rather predictably got Cardiff nowhere. Did we ever look like scoring a try? This writer would suggest we could still be there now and have nil.
Marc Jones benefitted from a rolling maul to add insult to the injury endured by supporters from freezing temperatures and turgid rugby, and the embarrassment was complete. 24-0. A first nil for Cardiff Blues outside of the Anglo-Welsh Cup since New Year’s Day 2010.
Post-game saw mention of ‘Sale playing the conditions better’, but in truth the simple fact of the matter was that they appeared to want it more. That in itself is unacceptable.
It’s disrespecting the hardy supporters who braved snow on the lengthy drive from South Wales to the North-West and freezing temperatures in the stands all in the hope of witnessing a group of players doing their all to offer some sort of reward for the time and monetary sacrifices.
More than that though, it’s not doing the jersey justice, and that’s what really hurts. We, as supporters, can abide losing if we gave it a go. To go down seemingly without any fight is almost an insult.
What particularly frustrates is that this season, for the first time in too many years, there did seem to be a grit and determination about the squad. Dragons at home, Toulouse away and Connacht at home, all wins built on the strength of team spirit and tenacity.
Then to Connacht away, where not only was there a monumental defensive effort, but clear evidence of an ability to play positive rugby despite less than ideal weather conditions. Where was this on Saturday?
However, with this rant of a match report done and dusted, it’s time to move on. How we do that will be decided ultimately by the players this coming Sunday.
The beauty of European Rugby’s December double headers is that if round three did not go as planned, as it certainly hasn’t for Cardiff Blues, there is an immediate chance of redemption. On Sunday afternoon at the Arms Park, this is exactly what we will be after.
As big as Sale at home is in terms of this season’s Challenge Cup, we are still top of pool two after all, this weekend’s game has a big part to play in how the rest of the season as a whole will pan out. Will it promise much and fade away? Or will an inner steel develop within this playing group, and they kick on to put Cardiff Blues back where we belong?
For all our failings in recent years, this club is still a big name in European competition. The only Welsh club to win a trophy in continental competition, Heineken Cup runners-up and participants in some of the greatest games seen in the professional era.
If you can’t raise your game to another level as a Cardiff Blues player in a European competition, then when can you? Perhaps the door would be the best option.
As much as I’ll moan for years to come about freezing to death in Sale, I’d do it all again because I honestly believe in this group of players. Now it’s time for them to deliver, for themselves, for the club and for the supporters. Come on Cardiff!!