It may seem like an odd time to be doing an analysis piece of our attacking form, considering that Cardiff Blues average points scored over the last four games is exactly the same as the season average so far, 20.
However, there’s a definite feeling that the total should be higher in recent weeks, when taking into account the quality of a Sale Sharks second string side, a struggling Dragons, and the domination of Scarlets.
This isn’t to say that we’ve been poor in attack recently, as such, but it’s to underline part of the reason why our attack has been so hit-and-miss.
For those of you into your turn of the century electronic music, Fatboy Slim’s ‘Ya Mama’ will be well known to you. If that isn’t quite your listening of choice though, you will be intrigued to learn that it is basically just the repetition of the line ‘push the tempo’ over some noise.
Indeed the word ‘tempo’ is sung 30 times throughout the song, which isn’t far off how many times I use the very same word while watching Cardiff Blues recently.
Our issue is how often we end up with slow ball, and how it kills all momentum in our attack. We have gone through multi-phase attacks comfortably, but have rarely threatened to break the opposition’s defensive line. Attacks have generally petered out, resulting in kicking possession away, even from decent field position.
The slow ball is a problem in three forms; it allows the defence organise themselves, the defence line speed generally increases, and it’s easier to identify the attack’s shape.
For the first of the problems, it is a particular issue for Cardiff Blues on turnover ball, an area of our game we pride ourselves on in terms of being very effective.
The lethargy amongst the Cardiff Blues players kills any chance of a high tempo counter attack as Sale Sharks recover their shape and are able to drift across. Each attacker is tracked by a defender, with a man on the cover to assist, and the counter attack ends up making no ground.
In terms of the line speed, against a team like the Ospreys it was hugely difficult to get any forward momentum off slow ball as they somewhat bullied us up front in the battle of the big men.
The pace of their initial defensive blitz gives Alex Cuthbert the unenviable task of trying to get at least back to the gain line from close to 10 metres behind it. When that is predictably not possible it allows Ospreys to pressure the breakdown and slow down the next phase.
Subsequently they are still organised and ready to blitz on the next phase, preventing Cardiff Blues creating any sort of speed of ball or momentum. With that slow ball then comes the ability to read an attack.
Event though the Dragons defensive set up isn’t ideal here, with too many men packed in on the blindside and in the guard area of the ruck, the slow speed of ball makes it too easy for a man of Gavin Henson’s experience.
He identifies the pyramid set up between Gareth Anscombe, Rey Lee-Lo and Garyn Smith, spot blitzing on the outside to cut off the pass out the back to Lee-Lo. He also makes a long floated pass out to Nick Williams or Matthew Morgan a risky one.
This turns Anscombe back inside into the grateful arms of the initial defensive line who diffuse an otherwise dangerous looking attacking position.
However, this clip is a good one to segway into the benefits that controlling the tempo of the game and injecting pace at the right time brings. There’s less chance for the opposition to re-organise in defence, it often narrows the defending side, and it isolates players out wide forcing them into poor decisions.
As Cardiff Blues secure possession from the kick-off, the quick ball doesn’t allow Dragons to drop back into their defensive shape, leaving a close to 10 metre gap in the line for Josh Navidi to target and get over the gain line.
Late in the game it takes a big effort for Dragons to recover, taking energy levels out of their subsequent attempts to push for a score late in the game.
It also forces defences into quick decisions, not allowing them the time to properly identify our attacking shape or the move that has been called.
In this instance the Ospreys defender gets his shoulders pointing the wrong way and is pulled narrow by Rey Lee-Lo’s dummy run, allowing Owen Lane the opportunity to carry the ball into a two-on-one out wide.
Unfortunately it’s not executed, but the intent shown is a positive and the move eventually finishes with Owen Lane sliding over in the far corner. When it does come off though, it often means danger for the defence.
The short phases in the build up to this result in Sale constricting their defence to the fringes of the breakdown, and when they don’t get around the corner quickly the enough, the pace injected by Tomos Williams brings width into play on the openside.
With the line speed not quick enough to worry Gareth Anscombe at second receiver he can pick out a runner angling towards the gaps in a sparse midfield defence. Against Dragons a variation of this worked even better.
Tomos Williams skips the playmaker, and his dart draws the defence’s bodygaurd, isolating Gavin Henson in a half-hearted blitz and allowing Rey Lee-Lo a free jog to the line.
This analysis isn’t to say that the game needs to be played at 100 miles-per-hour for 80 minutes. However, controlling the tempo of the game allows you to inject pace into the game at the right time and produce more line breaks than we have over the last few weeks.
There’s no doubt that there’s a link to the poor fortunes of the pack in terms of losing the physical battle up front, but it’s not an all encompassing excuse. 60 minutes against Gloucester in last season’s Challenge Cup quarter-final, and the Judgement Day win over the Ospreys prove that.
If we can get our hands on the ball against Toulouse we stand a chance. Then it’ll just come down to backing ourselves and taking our chances, just like we did in October. Imagine a repeat of that…