Analysis: Chasing shadows

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Saturday night’s second successive single score defeat, this time at the hands of Benetton, was disappointing for a myriad of reasons from a Cardiff Blues perspective.

In attack we failed to fire any real shots in phase play, resulting in just the one try scored from a powerful scrum, while in defence the quantity of missed tackles, the intensity of the line speed and the general attitude of the players left a lot to be desired.

However, it is in transition that Cardiff Blues disappointed me most, as we failed to compete with Benetton when it came to broken play and kicking. While the majority of the pre-match coverage was focused on the power of the Italians up front, the quality of their back three was almost completely overlooked.

As a result, it almost came as a surprise to the players in Treviso when the likes of Jayden Hayward, Monty Ioane and Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara carried the ball back to us with such confidence and incisiveness that at times it felt like we almost couldn’t stop it.

The problem starts with Cardiff Blues having no clear kicking strategy, as Lloyd Williams, Willis Halaholo and particularly Jarrod Evans and Matthew Morgan seem to be left largely to their own devices to control the game as they see it.

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Kicking from midfield has to be accurate in gaining field position, as you are risking a good attacking position, as there is in this clip with Evans having options outside him, to try and put the ball down into the opposition 22.

The aim is generally to find touch with a low kick, and then attempt to put pressure on Benetton’s defensive lineout with their own try line dangerously close, but finding the full-back will more than likely end up with you losing field position, as we do here.

Alternatively, the kick can be high to chase, but when we tried that on Saturday night, we were far too obvious in our plan and the Italians happily accepted the free possession.

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Moving Kris Dacey and Big Nick Williams forwards into a blocking position immediately alerts the Benetton defence to the fact that Jarrod Evans is looking to kick, and the right winger starts to drop so that he can block the chasing lines for the Cardiff Blues players.

They are also in position for an offload from Hayward, and Benetton wind up working back to the 10 metre line, leaving the away side having gained just five metres from the attacking position inside the opposition half.

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Similarly Gareth Anscombe calls for the kick too early as the Benetton right winger drops and calls for the mark, subsequently returning the kick with interest and costing us another attacking position inside the opposition half.

The second point to make from the clip of Anscombe kicking is the attacking line outside the fly-half is so poorly organised and comfortably out-numbered by a strong Benetton defence.

This analysis could have been about our structure in attacking phase play, had our kicking game not been so obviously dreadful, but there is a link between the two.

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In a similar fashion to how Gareth Anscombe had a poorly organised back line outside him, Jarrod Evans has just two players to his left here, with Willis Halaholo and Owen Lane, who is just out of the picture at the start.

To avoid a tackle being made comfortably behind the gain line, Evans opts for the kick, but with the vast majority of the Cardiff Blues team at the top of the picture it leaves no cover in behind Halaholo when the centre goes to chase so as soon as the balls bounces behind him there is a huge gap for Benetton to exploit.

Back line organisation and general game management have to be questioned, the ball should not be going wide there when the team is trying to re-organise after a frantic period of play. Dictating the tempo is fine, but that works in terms of slowing the game down, as well as trying to play at pace.

It’s not just the game management that is the issue though, but the kick chase comes in for criticism when the kick itself, or at least the decision to kick, is the right one.

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Morgan’s kick is tight to the touchline and allows the rest of the team to form up into a decent kick chase, however an individual error from Willis Halaholo to spot blitz and not make the tackle allows Ratuva to step through the gap left by him in the line.

Whether that is an act out of line with the coaching, or if it is a coaching issue, it needs to be known that the easiest way to defend is as a unit and not individually. That only works if the unit is on the same page though.

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When Morgan kicks through on the counter attack it’s a great opportunity to put pressure on Benetton, pin them deep in their own 22 and force them to kick to touch resulting in a big gain of territory for Cardiff Blues.

Now, Benetton do get a touch lucky in how their recovery plays out, but it’s aided by a big dogleg in the Cardiff kick chase as Lane, Lloyd and Morgan are pressing, while Lee-Lo and Harries are lagging behind.

That isn’t to criticise Lee-Lo and Harries solely though, the communication is severely lacking and comes back to the idea that the Blues lacked defensive leadership last weekend.

The three lead chasers can be called to form up with the two follow up chasers, forming a solid defensive line and forcing Benetton to kick or stopping any counter attack, or the two follow up chasers can be called to bust a gut and get up alongside the lead chasers and put big pressure on the Benetton back three.

To work as a unit you have to communicate though, and as that falls apart so does the organisation.

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This was comfortably the worst example of our kick chase on Saturday night as Jayden Hayward slices through the defensive line with such ease. It takes just one step of his left foot and he’s through without even being touched.

The issue as I see it is two-fold. Firstly, the shape of the kick chase is all over the place as there is no distinct Cardiff Blues line, too many gaps for Hayward to target, but it’s the detail in the kick chase that is lacking.

At the heart of the kick chase are three forwards, and central of them is Dmitri Arhip. Not the most agile of rugby players, it’s fair to say.

The four backs in the kick chase are spread to the extremes of the line, preventing Benetton from getting around the line, but leaving the less mobile forwards exposed in the centre of the line.

Ideally you’d have one of the centres lining up alongside Ellis Jenkins and Rory Thornton there, preventing Hayward from looking up and seeing a pod of forwards to target in the counter attack.

I’ve no doubt that the team will have worked hard on their defensive organisation this week, and I hope there will have been some soul searching individually from players who perhaps didn’t have the right mentality in terms of putting their bodies on the line for their team-mates and the jersey.

The proof will be in the pudding though, and a vastly improved defensive performance is expected this weekend as the Italian tour comes to an end. Come on Cardiff!

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