Cardiff Blues won through to our third European final on Saturday at the Arms Park with a 16-10 victory of French side Pau in the semi-final.
Once again it was an impressive performance from Danny Wilson’s men in pretty much all areas, as we fronted up to Pau’s physical carriers, defended their threats in the wise channel with Shaun Edwards organised ease, and sliced through them with an incisive attack for Gareth Anscombe’s try.
It seemed Pau had not watched the Cardiff Blues games against Toulouse and Lyon earlier in the season, where we managed to deal with their power game in open play fairly comfortably. We might not be the visually biggest team, but we more than make up for that with the amount of tackle machines we possess, particularly in the back row.
However, what Pau brought that the other two teams didn’t to the same extent, was a monstrous set piece. The size of their pack, particularly Malik Hamadache at tighthead, meant that they destroyed our scrum on more than one occasion, until the front row were replaced in the middle of the second half.
It needed a plan, and just like in Edinburgh for the quarter-final, Danny Wilson and coaching staff had a joker up their sleeves.
There was a difference though. In Scotland we added to our game, as our attack mixed things up big time with a variety of kicking and carrying, confusing Edinburgh who had prepared for Jarrod Evans to try and make things happen from flat to the line.
At the Arms Park, however, it was what we took away from our game that made all the difference. Firstly, Danny Wilson admitted in the post-match press conference that we had effectively conceded the scrum to Pau, but had a weapon up our sleeves.
The second aspect of the game that we gave up to Pau was the very front of the lineout.
Now, this may seem insignificant, just five yards between Seb Davies as the first jumper and Anton Peikrishvili at the front of the lineout, however it offers Pau an easy option to secure possession from the throw.
Although that would appear to be an advantage for Pau, Cardiff worked it into our favour in two ways.
The first of those was that by conceding the throw to the front, the forwards in the lineout were totally focused on immediately driving Pau towards the extra defender, the touchline.
Before the opposition has properly set themselves Cardiff Blues are already on top of the drive, and by coming in at an angle it leaves Pau unable to set themselves to drive at the maul, unable to wheel out to the left for fear of going into touch, and struggling to wheel to the right due to the position of the Cardiff pack.
Alternatively, if Pau chose to skip the maul and commence their first phase attack off the top of the lineout, we had a contingency to deal with that.
Although Pau didn’t throw right to the front and come off the top, you can see the basic idea relies on Kris Dacey flying up from the back of the lineout. If the Pau scrum-half were to be closer to the touchline, as you’d expect from a front jumper, Dacey would have more time to blitz and either go for an intercept or force the scrum-half to turn towards a dead end.
For both of the above reasons, teams generally try to avoid throwing to the front unless trying to secure the ball as part of an exit strategy, and this is where the wisdom of giving up the front of the lineout comes into play.
At the majority of the lineouts, Pau opted for a five or six man set piece, while Cardiff Blues generally set up as above.
The players with red arrows above their heads are the designated lifters, while the black arrows are the designated jumpers, with a middle and back pod formation utilised.
The front lifter and front jumper form the front pod, the back lifter and back jumper form the back pod, and the player in the middle has the important role of reacting to Pau’s movements and lifting the right Cardiff Blues jumper.
As a result of giving up the front of the lineout, it means the two pods don’t have to adjust their positions at all in reaction to what move Pau have called.
This is particularly evident in the first clip, where Seb Davies does not move at all, he keeps his eyes fixed firmly on the ball and is then lifted by Nick Williams and Gethin Jenkins when it becomes obvious which jumper Pau are lifting.
All it needs is a slight under-throw from the hooker, and Davues and Josh Turnbull are up to steal possession, on both occasions when Pau were looking to set up an attack in our half.
It wasn’t just at the lineout itself that Cardiff Blues targeted Pau though. More impressively than that we matched their power at the maul, securing three turnovers from an area of the game the French side appeared to be expecting to dominate at.
We did that with the use of three players; Josh Turnbull, Seb Davies and Nick Williams. Our three best defensive maul operators, and they really stepped up to the plate.
The aim at each maul was to put in two ‘pillars’, which would be one of the players named above either side of the maul, and then try to nullify any threat from Pau trying to wheel out and drive forwards.
Particularly in the first clip, you can see Seb Davies and Josh Turnbull in as the pillars, heads up and noticing the maul wheeling in-field. Davies is told to move by the referee, but as the wheel comes in Josh Turnbull’s direction he is in the ideal position to break through the binds which are stretched as the maul drives forward and latch on to the ball carrier.
The second clip is slightly different, in that Pau try to wheel in-field, fail to do so, and then fail to protect the blindside allowing Nick Williams to swim through for another turnover
Perhaps the best example of out maul defence was this turnover from Nick Williams though. The number eight and Seb Davies act as the pillars, so that when Pau wheel to the blindside Williams is still latched on to the maul. If just one pillar was in place he would likely be taken out of the game in the wheel.
Despite Pau getting a decent push on, Nick Williams can stay right in the thick of it, and as Pau’s binds loosen again, he can latch on to the ball carrier and secure a turnover just outside our 22.
All in all, some superb work at the set piece from Cardiff Blues, masterminded by Danny Wilson who has more than cemented his reputation as a top class forwards coach in the last few weeks. The only question now is, what will he come up with for the final?