From crisis to quarters

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Three and a bit months is a long time in the world of Rugby Union. Cardiff Blues have gone from losing the first three games of the season, to securing a spot in the knockout rounds of the Challenge Cup with a game to go. Add in the fact we’re sat in the Champions Cup qualification places in the Pro14, and it’s not going too badly.

It’s a vast change from the beginning of October where, if you read and believed certain parts of the Welsh rugby media, Cardiff Blues were destined for a season of misery at the foot of Conference A, Danny Wilson would have been out of the door by Christmas, and the new head coach would be that guy slumped in the corner of the City Arms.

‘CAPITULATING CARDIFF BLUES IN A TERRIBLE MESS’ yelled WalesOnline as we slipped to defeat in Leinster, ‘only a fool would believe Wilson is certain to remain at the helm until next spring’, wrote Delme Parfitt as he claimed we should forget the upper echelon of coaches to replace Wilson, while Gwyn Jones bemoaned a lack of forwards and defence coach, as well as poor recruitment, on ScrumV.

Players Leinster
Were the players happy with the season start? Of course not

Special mention has to go Andy Howell though, for his wonderfully bizarre attempt at a hatchet job at the beginning of October where he claimed Zebre were a better team than Cardiff Blues, and wrote of Danny Wilson being a ‘lame duck’.

Five days later we began a run of seven wins in nine league and European games, beating Zebre 37-8 along the way.

The reason for that, of course, is that we weren’t actually ever at crisis point. Yes there are issues with governance higher up the management chain, but purely in terms of the playing side of the club, a lot of the reporting and commenting was too reactional, and failed to look at the wider points.

In a blog that appeared on this website just a few days after Andy Howell’s article I called for some context in terms of the early season opposition, with Munster and Leinster notoriously difficult places to travel to, and Glasgow being one of the favourites for a tilt at the league championship.

Steve Shingler Glasgow H 2017
Steve Shingler narrowly missed a late kick to beat Glasgow at CAP

Further consider what, in my eyes, was the major issue, a pre-season that left the players totally under-prepared to hit the ground running in the Pro14, and you’ve undone the early season ‘crisis’. Outlandish headlines and opinion pieces may be good for clicks, but they rarely hit the nail on the head in terms of the matter at hand.

Looking at the situation now it’s a lot more settled, and probably where you’d expect Cardiff Blues to be, if not slightly ahead of that.

Fourth in the Pro14’s Conference A, sitting in the automatic Champions Cup qualification places courtesy of Cheetahs being the third-placed side, is not a bad position to be in after a tough fixture block.

Add in two superb performances over French opposition to secure ‘le double double’, top spot in the Challenge Cup’s pool two, and a quarter-final against Edinburgh and the result is a hugely successful campaign in the pool of death.

Gareth Anscombe scores as Cardiff Blues beat Toulouse

Throughout the last few months there have been some standout individual contributions. Owen Lane’s breakthrough has been well documented, Tomos Williams has continued his impressive form and Garyn Smith has managed to dislodge the Willis Halaholo/Rey Lee-Lo partnership in the centre.

It hasn’t all been about the youngsters though, as the old guard have lead by example. George Earle, when fit, has been a key cog in the second row, Matthew Rees has rolled back the years to nail down the number two jersey, while Nick Williams has proved why he still earns the big bucks despite his advancing years.

Results-wise it hasn’t all been plain sailing. There was the heavy defeat at the hands of Glasgow after a Fa’ao Filise red card, frustrating Welsh derby defeats to Scarlets and Ospreys, while the loss away to Sale Sharks ranks as one of the worst outings of recent years.

Nick Williams Sale
Nick Williams has been at his bullish best

However, the most impressive aspect of this period has been an attribute Cardiff Blues has lacked for some time. You could call it a backbone, some would describe it as a gritty determination, or maybe just some heart. Whatever way you look at it, there is some substance behind the talent of the team.

Wins away at Toulouse, Lyon and Dragons, and home to Connacht, all came from hard work and bottle, as much as they did from playing ability.

The Arms Park victories over Sale and Toulouse both came following tough defeats that took a mental toughness to bounce back from.

Finally, the comeback against Ospreys was one that came from the bond of a tight-knit group. Still a disappointing loss, but the losing bonus-point meant clinging on to the Champions Cup qualification spot. Psychologically, that’s a big boost.

Garyn Smith Ospreys
A late fight back at the Liberty Stadium left us in good shape ahead of Europe

I mention all these games as, even two years ago, I would be writing a very different piece about a very different set of results. That was all linked to a poor attitude and mindset within the squad.

Back then we’d have lost to Toulouse twice, lost to Connacht and Sale at home, Dragons and Lyon away, and been thoroughly hammered by Ospreys. We’d be looking at probably sixth places in the Pro14 conference, and ruing missing out on the European knockout rounds again.

Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly areas of our game that could do with tightening up. The set piece blows very hot and cold, likely down to too much chopping and changing of the tight five, the attacking game has yet to consistently click, and it feels like there are too many silly lapses of concentration, both in terms of playing and discipline.

Despite a largely successful few months, turning ‘crisis’ to quarter-finals, but we are only now getting into the business end of the season. Campaigns are made or broken during the Six Nations window, before the final run-in begins upon the conclusion of the internationals.

There is much work left to do, but for the first time in a good few years, we are in an excellent position to make the season a real success. I am genuinely excited for the months that are ahead. Come on Cardiff!

More of this please!

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