This Friday’s European Challenge Cup Final will see Cardiff Blues take on Gloucester at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao, in a repeat of last season’s quarter-final fixture at Kingsholm.
It was the home side who were the winners on that occasion, as the visitors fell away after the hour mark and eventually the scoreline finished at 46-26. However, since then there has been change at the top of Gloucester.
South African coach Johan Ackermann has taken over the running of the team, after leading the Lions to a Super Rugby final last season, and has tried to take them in a new attacking focused direction of playing ethos.
As such, I have looked back over their last few games and pinpointed some areas of strengths, and a few weaknesses, that Cardiff Blues may wish to keep an eye on in Spain.
When you look through some of the names that Gloucester could name in their forward pack, there is on common denominator; physicality.
From John Afoa and Val Rapava-Ruskin up front, to Jeremy Thrush and Ed Slater at lock and the likes of Ross Moriarty, Ruan Ackermann and Ben Morgan in the back row ranks, there are players who are happy to truck the ball forwards and add some power at the set piece.
What the ball carriers in Gloucester’s pack are excellent at doing is getting over the gainline for front foot ball. It is a crucial part to their game, and although sometimes they are left isolated, which could offer the Cardiff Blues back row a chance to show off their skills, when they get the support the quick ball they offer is dangerous.
Cardiff Blues will remember vividly the hammering we got at the scrum last season, especially when young Kieron Assiratti was pressed into action from the bench, and will be hoping to avoid a repeat of that at the set piece, but it is the rolling maul where Gloucester get a fair bit of joy.
Using examples against Harlequins in the Premiership, and Newcastle in the Challenge Cup semi-final, the similarities are striking as Gloucester utilise their big locks, the likes of Slater, Thrush or Argentinian international Mariano Galarza, as the focal point of the drive.
Setting up as the pillar at the front of the maul, they form a formidable barrier between the Gloucester attackers and the defensive disrupters, cleverly obstructing the opposition as they use their bodies as the turning point of a slight wheel.
The end result is that the majority of the opposition defenders are taken out of the maul defence by the player acting as the pillar, as he guides the rest of the Gloucester pack into the open space and towards the try line.
Cardiff Blues will have to be at the top of their maul defence game once again, just like they were against Pau in the semi-final.
When the power side of Gloucester’s game works well and provides a platform for the backs, the Cherry and Whites more than have the firepower to take advantage of that in their back division.
They have scored the fourth most tries in the Aviva Premiership this season, averaging almost three tries per game, and have struck a good balance between tricky runners and flat out pace behind the scrum to put teams under pressure.
Creating space out wide is a key aspect to their attacking game plan, and to do that they try to narrow the opposition defence throw the use of runners of nine and ten.
Each time in the three examples above when Gloucester play off ten, or someone stepping in at first receiver, there are at least three options in the five to ten yard channel either side of them who are offering as ball carriers.
This attacking setup drags defenders inside as they are forced to try and deal with the threat of those coming off the 10, rather than leaving huge spaces for those on a crash ball line to wander through.
Even when, as in the first two clips above, the opposition send a spot blitzer out in the 13 channel, the ball carrier knows it is a fairly low risk pass to find the man free on the outside with space to run in to.
The flip side is when a defence does leave an inside shoulder unprotected.
The first clip is a poor defensive misread, and is proof that the Cardiff Blues midfield have to be on their toes defensively on Friday, as if they solo blitz at the wrong time, or fail to cover a player on a crash ball line, Gloucester have the ability to take advantage of any gap in the defensive line.
In the second clip, there is a slight difference, and a good reminder that although Gloucester will send a number of runners off the 10, the 10 carrying himself is still a more than viable option, especially when the powerful Mark Atkinson steps in at first receiver from inside centre.
This attacking game plan suits the players Gloucester have in certain areas perfectly, and none more so than full-back Jason Woodward, who has been the star of the season in Cherry and White.
Whether returning the ball from deep, popping up on the screen pass in midfield, or being on the end of a wide move as detailed in the options off 10 above, Woodward has the pace and strength to beat a man easily.
Add in the composure and handling skills to keep the ball alive, and you have a very real threat to Cardiff Blues on Friday night. Kicking, and crucially kick chasing, will have to be spot on, while the likes of Rey Lee-Lo, Owen Lane and Blaine Scully will need to be wary where Woodward is on the pitch from first phase attack and in phase play.
It’s not all free flowing attack from Gloucester though, who have only really adapted this game plan this season after the arrival of Johan Ackermann.
As such, there are often errors when the Cherry and Whites try to play wide, and from deep.
Although the last clip is late in the game with Gloucester trying to scramble some points, the first two clips, which both resulted in tries being conceded, are only just either side of half-time.
The high risk, high reward game is superb when it pays off, but for Gloucester who are still at the start of this journey to a Scarlets-esque attacking outfit, mistakes will appear, especially in the pressure environment of a Challenge Cup Final.
Common denominator across the three clips is even coverage across the defensive line, and pressure on the 10 so he doesn’t have time to select the best option of the runners off him, something which have been staples of our defensive game this season.
In defence then, Gloucester seemingly have an issue which could see Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo licking their lips.
Gloucester’s issue in defence is that their size in attack cuts down on the mobility of their defensive line.
As a result, you can often find their ruck guard and body guard quite poorly positioned, with the midfield having to make up for this, and then the spacing appearing all wrong at certain points, leaving big holes for attacking ball carriers to target.
The second clip in particular will be a particularly exciting watch for Willis Halaholo, as you can easily imagine the hot stepper coming on a short line off Jarrod Evans there and stepping through a gap smaller than that of needs be.
When Gloucester then choose not to use the midfield to supplement the poor ruck guard and body guard work from the forwards, it leaves a large gap for a one or two-out runner, which Cardiff Blues like to try and utilise with the little pop pass between forwards in phase play.
If we can move the Gloucester pack around a bit, gaps will appear both on the inside and the outside of the defensive line, and then it will come down to Tomos Williams, Gareth Anscombe and Jarrod Evans to move the ball to take advantage of them.
As you’d expect from the Final, this will be our toughest game of the tournament so far in terms of coming up against a side that has the abilities to test our midfield defence.
Facing off against a pack that will try to dominate us physically is nothing new for Cardiff Blues, but how we deal with that is once again a key factor in how well we will do in Bilbao.
Can we do it though? Too right we can. Come on Cardiff!