This weekend sees Cardiff Blues take on part one of the Italian Job when the team travel to Treviso to take on Benetton in search of the first win of the season.
After struggling initially when joining the league in 2010, the side from the northern part of Italy have slowly transformed themselves into a competitive outfit under former All Black Kieran Crowley, and finished on 55 points with 11 wins last season, the same as the previous three years combined.
A summer of little change to the squad later, providing the stability required to push on, Benetton followed up last season’s form with a win over Dragons in Newport on the opening day of the Pro14 and will go into this weekend’s clash full of confidence.
For Cardiff Blues it makes the task of going to Italy and getting the win all the more difficult, but I’ve had a look at a way we might be able to get the better of Benetton on Saturday night.
Now, it’s difficult not to mention their forward power when discussing this weekend’s home side, with big names like Luca Bigi, Simone Ferrari, Dean Budd, Alessandro Zanni, Sebastian Negri and Braam Steyn in the side.
They have the experience and the physicality to put sides to the sword through their power and physicality, and indeed two of their three tries against Dragons came via the work of the forwards.
However, that was allowed to happen as Bernard Jackman’s side failed to get on top of their second threat, their back play, organised by half-backs Tito Tebaldi and Tommaso Allan.
Between them, Tebaldi and Allan will try to dictate the play as much as possible when the ball is not with the forwards, through clever kicks and particularly effective was the scrum-half changing the point of the attack regularly and keeping the defence on their toes.
With good field position they can then unleash the power of their forwards, a simple style of play, but effective at Rodney Parade last Saturday, and a style they will look to stamp on Cardiff Blues this weekend on their own turf.
This isn’t the only way they try and get down field though, as they revert to the old adge of ‘pass to the ball to your best player’.
Monty Ioane is a real danger on the Benetton left wing, who burst onto the scene last season with his acceleration, power and balance proving a threat to opposition defences.
Benetton will try to shift the ball to him quickly to give as much space as possible and try and set up a one-on-one with Ioane’s opposite winger to allow him to manufacture a line break or at least try to get front foot ball.
It’s the two above points combined, the impact of the half-backs on the back play and the desire to get the ball out wide, that leads to Benetton’s only try as they Tebaldi changes the point of the attack and the backs manage to break through a poorly prepared Dragons attack without the ball reaching Ioane before offloading to score.
However, that reliance on the half-backs and trying to get the ball out wide quickly is where Cardiff Blues can get stuck into Benetton defensively, and it will suit our style down to the ground.
To make sure that they can get the ball to the flanks quickly, Tommaso Allan regularly finds himself standing quite deep at first receiver to allow him and his backline slot in outside him with pacing issues and standing quite flat to each other.
Dragons, with their poor organisation and lack of line speed, allowed Benetton to play in front of them, and then some dodgy tackling that saw them miss 21 tackles during the game, was the basis on which the Italians set up field position, however things did go right for them occasionally in defence.
Benetton occasionally find themselves as the architects of their own downfall, with Allan playing deep and then the players outside him not lining up properly to bring on the forward pass.
It’s when there is a bit of pressure on them that they really struggle though, as in the second clip, but the pressure has to come in the right area.
What you’ve got here is Richard Hibbard, circled, putting a blitz in on Tommaso Allan, with the thinking being to stop the play before it develops. Almost like sacking the quarterback in the NFL.
However, with Allan standing so deep the blitz doesn’t get near him before he can move the ball out wide and then Hibbard leaves the defenders outside him exposed. Instead, he needs to be set in the line, with the blitzer out wide, and this is where Cardiff Blues can come into the equation with great success.
In both examples if there was a spot blitzer from the outside centre channel the player in possession of the ball would either be forced to turn inside into a ready and waiting fringe defence who can drive him back and get over the ball, or have to go for the spectacular pass outside.
If that comes off and they make yards, then fair play, but if you get your blitz right and put the pressure on, the risky pass can end in disaster for Benetton and glory for Cardiff Blues.
The encouraging thing is that I can see Cardiff Blues performing well defensively in all of these clips, with Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo or Garyn Smith leading the charge with the spot blitz from 13.
Then you have either Owen Lane or Jason Harries ready to take advantage on the outside, or any of Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams, Josh Navidi, Josh Turnbull and Olly Robinson waiting for the narrowing of the attack.
Benetton will inevitably get a chance to show off their forward power at some point, and how we deal with that will play a big part in how the game goes as a whole, as will our discipline and ability to use possession wisely.
However, if when Benetton do have the ball we can restrict their back play and increase the pressure on them to force errors and offer turnover opportunities, we will give ourselves a great chance to succeed in The Italian Job: Part One.