Analysis: Playing the percentages

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The 2018/19 season got underway at the Arms Park for Cardiff Blues on Friday night as John Mulvihill’s men fell to an agonising 32-33 defeat to reigning Pro14 and Heineken Cup champions Leinster.

There was plenty to be positive about for Cardiff going into two games in Italy, as we scored four tries for a try bonus point inside 50 minutes and put in a huge defensive performance making over 180 tackles at a 93% success rate.

If, before the game, supporters had been offered two match points from a game against Leinster then there is little doubt that many would have taken that. However, the manner in which the defeat actually came about on Friday left a sour taste as we trudged into the Cardiff night.

At 50 minutes the Blues were 29-14 up and cruising towards a bonus point win after two tries in five minutes at the beginning of the second half. Victory was in our hands, but it all went wrong…

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Over the next 30 minutes we would watch a 15 point lead get worn down slowly, as the last third of the game finished Cardiff Blues 3-19 Leinster.

The visitors were impressive, there is not doubt about that. Talk of them sending a ‘weakened’ side across the Irish Sea was seriously unfounded as although they were without their star players, they were more than competitive and put us to the sword up front.

We didn’t help ourselves though, despite some patches of very good game management.

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The aim when trying to see out a game is to make scoring as difficult as possible for the opposition, in plain and simple terms.

There are two ways to do that, one of which is to play the territory game and force Leinster to play from deep if they want to get across the try line. The likelihood of them breaking 60m+ on three occasions is minimal, and the hope would be that the frustration of being penned in your own half would lead to some poor decisions.

At times, Cardiff Blues looked like we had the hang of playing in the right areas in the pitch, with Tomos Williams producing a superb box kick, and then although his kick isn’t ideal in the first of the two clips above, the quick lineout prevents any pressure coming on ourselves from deep and Olly Robinson does brilliantly to force a turnover as Leinster try to attack.

The problem was that too often we let ourselves down when playing for field position.

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The kicking game has to be won, which means you either go for distance and try to pen Leinster back or force a poor kick, or you kick to compete and put pressure on the player receiving the kick either in the air or on the ground, at the very least stopping the kick return.

Unfortunately Jarrod Evans kick here is too central and too short, allowing Dave Kearney to return the ball with interest and produce a half-break, pushing the visitors up towards the Cardiff Blues 10 metre line.

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The most frustrating aspect of out kicking game in the last half an hour was not the quality of the actual kicking though, the box kick from Tomos Williams is well executed for Jason Harries to chase here, but what we did when we won the mini battle of field position.

On this occasion it’s a great high take from Jarrod Evans and we gain 10-15 metres and get into the Leinster half, only to not staff the breakdown properly and Scott Fardy uses all the experience that won him international caps for Australia to secure the turnover.

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Then Matthew Morgan produces a superb piece of play to gain approximately 40 metres as he punts from our own 22 and Fergus McFadden can only clear up to the Leinster 10 metre line.

A great opportunity to secure position in the opposition half, go through some phases and build pressure on their defence in the hope that as their desperation increases they end up infringing and allowing us to retain possession or kick for goal and extend the lead.

However, the lineout is lost and it’s two occasions that we lose good field position and a chance to manage the game, as well as allowing Leinster to go onto the attack. Inviting pressure on ourselves, which ultimately cost us a try during this time.

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This period of play is right at the beginning of the 30 minutes we had to see out the game with a 15-point lead, and already it seems like we are starting to panic.

The ball is secured after a bit of pinball, and after scoring two tries in five minutes it seems like the perfect time to put a foot on the ball, organise the forwards who are slowly setting themselves up into a carrying pod to the right of the breakdown and take a few phases to set up a kicking opportunity.

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Despite having 10 players in front of him though, Jarrod Evans decides this is the time to put a kick in straight down the middle of the field for Leinster to comfortably gather. No kick chasers as they are either looking for a breather or offside, and the visitors have time to choose the right option.

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They opt to kick it back, finding the plastic and allowing a kick chaser to put pressure on Matthew Morgan, who slices his clearance into the terrace and Cardiff Blues lose possession and field position.

Leinster promptly go on the attack and it’s from that passage of play that they shunt us over the line from a driving maul and get their comeback underway. If we had taken a few phases to set up an organised exit kick, it may well have worked out so differently.

That leads into the second way to make it as difficult as possible for the opposition to score, as mentioned above, is to keep hold of the ball, because they can’t score when they don’t have it!

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Now on the terrace on Friday night I was calling for the introduction of Steve Shingler at either fly-half or inside centre as Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans are excellent players, but their game management skills are not quite at the top level yet.

On this occasion you have Tomos forcing the ball out of the breakdown and producing a poor pass for Jarrod who is calling a play that doesn’t need to be some complex on the blindside when you are trying to see out the game.

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Once again it’s an over-complication, this time from Willis Halaholo, who is forcing the ball wide on turnover ball to create a break that isn’t there anyway. The miss-pass would have been easily defended by a drift defence, whereas putting the ball through the hands would have occupied defenders and created gaps as shoulders are turned the wrong way.

It’s easy to analyse individual incidents with the benefit of hindsight, of course, but there’s a recurring theme that nobody was getting a message through the team, whether that be the leaders on the pitch, the half-backs or the coaches, to play simple rugby.

‘Playing the percentages’ is a phrase that comes to mind. Nothing flashy, no requirement to force any attack, just build pressure on Leinster with the aim of winding the clock down and hopefully creating a breakthrough or forcing a defensive mistake in either organisation or discipline.

You could say we should have been ‘doing an Ireland’, instead we did something which I hope won’t become ‘a Cardiff Blues’, especially our last passage of play before Leinster launched their multi-phase attack to score the winning try.

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It starts in promising fashion as Leinster fail to field the kick and a good chase from Jason Harries, supported by Matthew Morgan, sees them pinned back on their own five metre line.

A clearance kick doesn’t make it far outside of the 22, and a superb claim from Jarrod Evans gives Cardiff Blues the perfect field position with around six minutes left of the game and a slender six point lead.

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The setup is good as Garyn Smith and Jason Harries get over Evans and secure possession, while Rhys Gill and Rory Thornton start to form a carrying pod to the left, with Olly Robinson within touching distance and Scott Andrews available to get around the corner to join them.

However, it’s from this point that control is lost just where Tomos Williams should be stamping his mark on the game and organising his forwards to take up some phases to allow Cardiff Blues to reset, Jarrod Evans get back on his feet and start to build pressure on Leinster.

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Unfortunately it’s not Tomos who takes over at the back of the breakdown, but Seb Davies who moves the ball quickly for Rory Thornton and then out the back for Matthew Morgan.

Now, there is clearly a good attacking position forming out wide, but it is completely unnecessary to be forcing the ball wide when you’re six points up inside the final minutes, and Matthew Morgan clearly realises that as he opts for Ethan Lewis on the short ball rather than anything riskier out wide.

Perhaps he realised that it wasn’t a smart move to be playing expansively at this stage, but it’s too late. We manage to hold on to possession, but lessons aren’t learnt.

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We’re back to the playing the percentages point again as we secure possession but keep trying to play at a tempo far above where we need to be.

There are two clear carrying pods forming, that Tomos Williams needs to be organising from the back of the breakdown with his foot on the ball, but instead we go quickly to a run-up runner on the blindside against an organised and set Leinster defence.

Predictably they swallow Rhys Gill up and Andrew Porter is over the ball before Seb Davies can get to the breakdown. Rory Thornton is trying to move a brick wall by the time he arrives.

From the ensuing penalty Leinster promptly batter the ball into touch deep in our half, go through 24 phases and score the match winning try at the base of the posts, all after we threw away a golden opportunity to manage the game in their half with six minutes to go.

It was a really tough one to take on Friday night, but going forward there are chances to turn it into a positive long-term.

Firstly, going to Italy and building on the positives from the performance to secure two wins will make taking two points seem like a real result, as not many other sides will do that this season. If we finish the first three league games with at least 10 points it will be a huge boost to take into massive all-Conference A games against Munster and Cheetahs at the Arms Park.

Secondly, it’s a great chance for the likes of Jarrod Evans and Tomos Williams to work on their game management which will take them to the next level. It’s important to remember they are only young, but if they want to reach the top of the game they will need to learn how to see out a game from 15 points up.

It’s not only them of course, Ellis Jenkins will learn from turning down a kick-able penalty early in the half-an-hour spell that lost the game, while the leaders on the field at the end need to recognise their responsibilities to guide the young players, but half-backs are such key positions in these situations and need to step up when called upon.

All in all, nothing too major to worry about, but an area of our game to keep an eye on. A much easier analysis to write than the start of last season! Come on Cardiff!

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