Cardiff Blues became European Challenge Cup champions for a second time last Friday night, as Gloucester were overcome in a 31-30 epic at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao.
At 6-20 down at half-time I’m sure I wasn’t the only person writing off Danny Wilson’s men. Another case of so close, yet so far for Cardiff Blues. Gloucester had completely outplayed us in the first half, and with Josh Navidi and Owen Lane having gone off early on, there was little positives to cling on to.
Of course, in hindsight we should have known the positives were what we’d built up throughout the second half of the season. A playing group that doesn’t know what ‘giving up’ means, and a coaching staff with the tactical awareness to guide us past the majority of the opponents.
Both of those delivered superbly, but there was plenty of confusion as we celebrated in Spain after game. How did we do it?! Well, a week on from the game, I think I’ve figured parts of it out.
The journey to half-time
Coming into the game, tactically speaking there was only one side I was looking forward to seeing and it was Cardiff Blues.
Danny Wilson and his coaches have pulled a few rabbits out of hats, against Edinburgh in the quarter-final and Pau in the semi-final, with both working to great effect to get us to Bilbao in the first place.
However, once at the San Mames Stadium, it was Gloucester who seemed to have got the jump on us tactically, ignoring the running game which we had watched in all of their previous six or seven games.
Against Saracens and Bath, Gloucester kicked a total of 23 times, but they kicked 22 times against Cardiff Blues alone, and particularly in the first half it pinned us back in our own half a lot. Altogether we had just 42% possession and 37% territory in the first half, as the Cherry and Whites piled the pressure on.
Having been setup to defend Gloucester playing wide and fast, our wingers were quite often finding themselves up in the defensive line, with Gareth Anscombe left covering a lot of ground in the back field.
As a result, Calum Braley, Billy Burns and Mark Atkinson in the Gloucester three-quarter line were more than happy to pick gaps to kick tactically into, and turn the Cardiff Blues team back to our own line.
Now, although Cardiff Blues exit work was actually very good in the first half, it formed part of a vicious circle that rarely resulted in us properly clearing our lines.
Gloucester would kick in behind. We would win the lineout and exit cleanly, but only ever as far as our own 10m line, and then the Cherry and Whites would either kick in behind again, or be able to make ground into the 22 and beyond.
The kicking itself was only a small part of the issue though. The main problem was that our main defensive weapon was not allowed to function properly.
For Cardiff Blues, the quickest way to break the vicious circle would have been to execute a jackal turnover. Even with Josh Navidi off the field, we still had Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams and Olly Robinson in the back row, with Josh Turnbull and Kris Dacey adept over the ball as well.
Unfortunately, up against a physical Gloucester pack, the tackle height was often too high.
The result of that was that, not only does is not offer an opportunity for the jackal to get over the ball, with the second clip a prime example of when Olly Robinson was ready to attempt a turnover, but it allows Gloucester to make metres and get quick, go-forward ball.
Those attacking sets really ramped up the pressure on Cardiff Blues, and after the first try, it was these phases of defence that resulted in us conceding penalties, and the lapse in defensive concentration that led to the second try on the stroke of half-time.
There were also problems with body positions in attack, stunting any progress with what little ball we did have.
Carrying too high was the issue for Cardiff Blues throughout the first 40 when we did get our hands on the ball, which worked to stop us playing at any sort of speed, and with any decent front foot ball.
Gloucester’s well organised initial defence stocked with their powerful forwards soaked up what we did throw at their line with ease, stopping us playing in their half, or managing to manufacture more than one line break.
Even when we did get some quick first phase ball, we looked restricted and reserved in our use of the ball.
All change at the break
So, we’re all sat there at half-time wondering where on Earth we go from here? Gloucester have done a job on us, we’re 14 points down, and there’s very little positives to cling on to.
However, while Gloucester may have surprised Danny and his coaches in the first half, they’ve got some tweaks up their sleeves that will help the Cardiff Blues push on a bit more.
Essentially, it came down to playing a bit, something we’ve been very good at this season. From the very first phase of the second half we made six passes, more passes than we’d made in one phase throughout the first half, and managed to get the ball out to Blaine Scully on the right wing while moving 10 metres up the field.
There was some inter-play between forwards and half-backs at first receiver, dummy runners where a lot more committed to create space outside them, and we were generally braver in terms of moving the ball along the back line.
The basis for that was a clear improvement in the carry height issues that had impacted upon our attacking play in the first half.
There was a clear desire to be much smarter with our style of ball carrying in the second half, with forwards concentrating less on trying to bludgeon across the gain line, and more on focusing on the production of quick ball.
Getting much lower in the body position, with a supporting player close by to prevent any jackal, meant that possession was secured quickly, and with good ball presentation, we very quickly had quick go-forward ball to play from.
Gloucester, with their large forwards and poor defensive organisation in terms of working out their spacing, struggled to deal with this attacking, especially at the key moments of just after half-time and inside the last 10 minutes of the game.
They also failed to get us back into the vicious circle of the first half.
Cardiff Blues kicked on far fewer occasions in the second half, and when we did there was a plan to keep the ball in play and go for distance.
Another brave move, but we trusted our kick chase to stop Jason Woodward in the first clip, and then Gloucester kicked the ball out on the full in the second clip. Two excellent results from clearance kicks, rather than inviting pressure back onto ourselves from lineouts inside our own 10m line.
Then there is the improvement to the tackle height, which gave us the opportunity to slow Gloucester down dramatically, and eventually win the game.
Tackling low stopped Gloucester making metres after contact and allowing their carriers to have teammates latched on, killing a lot of their forward momentum and not allowing their kicking game to flourish as our defence tried to re-organise on the back foot.
However, it’s the final example above that the low tackle tactic can take most praise for as, just after Gloucester had got their noses back in front, they were on the attack just outside our 22 again.
With less than 15 minutes to go another score would have been the nail in the Cardiff Blues coffin, but a low Olly Robinson tackle brings the ball carrier down early, and Ellis Jenkins is on hand to secure the turnover with a textbook jackal.
Despite having looked at all of the above though, there’s still a part of me that isn’t sure how we actually did it, and another part of me that refuses to believe we actually did it!
It was a superb effort from a very special group of players and a top coaching staff, a fitting reward for the tactical and physical effort put in by all concerned. One of the truly great European performances.