Cardiff Blues won through to the European Challenge Cup semi-finals for the first time since 2010 on Saturday thanks to a 6-20 win over Edinburgh at Murrayfield.
Despite both teams coming into the game on the back of five straight Guinness Pro14 wins over the Six Nations block of fixtures, there was still an expectation amongst most rugby fans that Edinburgh would be victorious. Although Cardiff Blues were quietly confident in our form, there was an underlying uncertainty amongst the supporters.
Most of that stemmed from an opposition set up by Richard Cockerill, a man synonymous with a strong set piece, a dominant breakdown area, and just a generally physical style of play. All areas of the game that could easily be the achilles heel of a Cardiff Blues side.
Add in an uncanny record of winning games from losing positions late-on, and Cardiff were in for a real challenge. Nothing appeared simple about heading up to Scotland, but we made it look almost easy once we got there.
Danny Wilson, Matt Sherratt, Shaun Edwards and Richard Hodges put together a superb game plan that nullified the threats posed by Edinburgh, pretty much by taking away any chance for the opposition to insert themselves on the game physically, and the players enacted that plan perfectly.
Without the ball
As the team who had conceded the least points and tries throughout this season’s Challenge Cup pool stage, in the pool of death, it must be noted, there has been no doubting the defensive capability of Cardiff Blues under Shaun Edwards and Richard Hodges this season.
It’s a marked improvement on last year where we conceded the most points of any Cardiff team in the professional era.
The basis of the defensive system has been the Shaun Edwards trademark blitz, and that worked to great effect in Edinburgh on Saturday, as we hit the home side with an intense and physical defensive line.
Edinburgh found it difficult to get around or through the blitz all afternoon, whether they were one-up carrying into the fringe defenders or trying to throw the ball wide over the outside of the blitz. That culminates in the third clip where the fly-half has completely run out of options and is left to lose 5-10 metres on the phase.
The team blitz has been very effective all season, but what was particularly impressive on Saturday was the intelligence of individuals in the defensive line to spot when a spot blitz was on. Get it wrong and you’re out of the game, leaving a big gap to attack where you should be, but get it right, and the results are generally very good.
In midfield the spot blitz is effective from both Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo, causing turnovers on two occasions, but they have the cushion of distance between the defensive line and the try line if they weren’t effective in the tackle.
The final clip, on the other hand, is Blaine Scully reading the attack perfectly to prevent an almost certain try scoring opportunity. He bites in at just the right time to cut-out a two-on-one opportunity for Edinburgh, with any pass to the left winger almost certainly ending up with a score in the corner.
It wasn’t just in the spot blitz that we showed off our defensive intelligence though, but in how we are now able to read an opposition attack and adjust accordingly as a defensive line.
Although the blitz is still the core of the defensive system in each of these clips, the awareness of the defensive line to switch to a drift when Edinburgh try to throw the ball wide halts any chance of them stretching us and creating gaps for their outside backs.
I mentioned on Twitter that the stats showed Cardiff Blues missed 31 tackles on Saturday, a much higher number than any time would hope for going into a game.
However, watching the last clip it is clear why that didn’t particularly matter, as the winger breaks two tackles, only to be met by a third defender making the tackle to prevent any significant territory gain.
Even if he breaks the third defender there are still three more Cardiff Blues players waiting to make the tackle. That level of defensive organisation is what stops 30+ missed tackles being an issue, and why Edinburgh just could not manufacture more than three line breaks.
The Cardiff Blues defensive system moved beyond just the defensive line and the tackle though, it placed a huge emphasis on the breakdown area as well.
Before Ellis Jenkins’ yellow card in the 66th minute, Cardiff Blues had contested close to 70% of all breakdowns., either through a jackal or a counter-ruck.
Although not all were successful in securing a turnover, the effect on Edinburgh was obvious as they had to commit extra men to the breakdown, work a sizeable opposition pack harder around the field, and often have to contend with slow ball in attack.
Of course when the contests were successful, there was then either counter-attacking opportunity or a penalty coming our way. With Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins and Nick Williams in the back row, as well as Gethin Jenkins and Seb Davies in the tight five, there was plenty of quality breakdown operators.
The impressive thing about the focus on the breakdown is that it didn’t matter what the circumstances of the tackle were, there was generally an attempt made to turnover or slow down the ball.
Compare the first clip, where the breakdown is attacked after the carrier is brought down behind the gainline, to the final clip, where the carrier is able break a few tackles and get on the front foot. Both times Edinburgh lose possession.
You can have the best tactics, but you need the players to make plays when it matters. Fortunately on Saturday we had both.
With the ball
It’s all well and good operating well when not in possession, but you have to take advantage of that with ball-in-hand, and that is possibly where the biggest concern lay for Cardiff Blues. Being bullied at attacking breakdowns would kill our whole attacking game plan.
Fortunately, the coaches had a plan for that too, and it involved a huge commitment from the forwards.
At close to 90% of all Cardiff Blues attacking breakdowns before the yellow card, we committed two men to clearing out the opposition players. A huge show of mobility and intensity to consistently secure our ball.
The best evidence of that is the final clip as Ellis Jenkins has turned and sealed off Owen Lane before John Hardie has even properly arrived at the breakdown, before Gareth Anscombe and Josh Navidi are there to stop any chance of a counter-ruck.
This tactic also had the, possibly unintended, outcome of winning two penalties during the game.
At the second breakdown in the first clip, and the only breakdown in the second, the first Cardiff Blues man is there so quickly that they don’t even allow the tackler to roll away. Subsequently the Edinburgh player is pretty much pinned on the wrong side of the breakdown, and gives away the penalty on the both occasions.
Operating with this effort intensive tactic would seem somewhat over-the-top, to try and get two men plus the ball carrier to every breakdown, but on occasions when this wasn’t successful, Edinburgh showed exactly why it was necessary.
On the first occasion there is just one player waiting to clear out, and Edinburgh effect the turnover fairly easily, while in the second clip Seb Davies arrives at the breakdown just a fraction late, but the Edinburgh player is already in position over the ball.
Without the two-man tactic clips like this would have been all too common. It’s a credit to the effort and commitment of the players that we were able to ensure Edinburgh turned the ball over on very few occasions.
With the ball secured though, we then had to use it, and this is where two men came to the fore; Matt Sherratt and Jarrod Evans.
Edinburgh will no doubt have watched the tape of Evans tearing Ulster to shreds the week before, and the plan seemed to be to carry on with the strong inside defence they have displayed during their winning run, as well as sending a spot blitzer up on the outside to make Evans think about going wide to get around them.
What they weren’t expecting was Evans to mix up the attacking game so much, generally switching from two short phases to a wide one, as well as utilising a variety of kicks to keep the defensive line on their toes.
It was these kicks that led to both first half Cardiff Blues tries.
Now, obviously the main question is ‘what on earth is the Edinburgh scrum-half doing?’. However, you make your own luck in this game, and Evans has pulled the home side’s defence back and forth to such an extent that their defensive line is disorganised as he receives the ball.
With no sign of the full-back Evans weights the kick perfectly and turns the scrum-half covering. The rest comes down to a shocking misjudgement of the flight of the ball, and an excellent pickup from Ellis Jenkins.
The second try is the best example of Sherratt’s plan put into practice though, and once again it worked perfectly to create another piece of luck.
Jarrod Evans stands deep at first receiver, with the backs flat outside him. A shape to signal a kick play if there ever was one, and as a result Edinburgh drop to two men in the back field.
Switching to the first clip and we can see Blair Kinghorn rush up into the left wing position once Evans throws the pass wide, but Gareth Anscombe is the receiver and weights a perfect kick into the space vacated by the Edinburgh player. A justification of the decision to go with Evans and Anscombe as the 10/15 axis.
Turning Kinghorn and forcing him to cover a bouncing ball facing his own try line results in the mistake by the Scottish international, and then it’s excellent awareness from Rey Lee-Lo and support from Blaine Scully to score the try.
All in all, it’s a tactical masterclass from Danny Wilson and his coaching staff, executed superbly by the players, to end up in one of the best Cardiff Blues performances of the season.
We thoroughly deserve our spot in the European Challenge Cup semi-finals and a chance to pack CAP. Now to get to work on a plan to beat Pau…