Oh the life of a Cardiff Blues supporter!
Five months ago we were flying high after Bilbao with a squad the togetherness of which had not been seen before, a mix of experience and exciting youth coming together to provide one of the most unlikely and stunning trophy victories, all things considered.
The hopes were raised as a coaching staff with potential on paper arrived, bringing with them some quality additions to the squad, as the new season approached an air of anticipation could be sensed. We’re back in the Heineken Cup and we’re targeting the play-offs, and you know what? There’s no reason we can’t get there.
It’s the hope that kills you
There is no such thing as plain sailing at the Arms Park, not even close, but these last few weeks have been a different level of disappointing even by the standards of Cardiff Blues.
Throw away a 15 point lead against Leinster. Disappointing, but there are positives.
Lead as the clock turns 80 against Benetton. Very disappointing but the Italians are improving and we’ll bounce back next week.
Go 21-0 up against Zebre and allow them to make the biggest comeback in Pro14 history? Not acceptable on any level.
Four points from a possible 15 and sixth in Conference A is not where this team should be on paper after the three games we have had, and yet here we are.
It’s all gone wrong
There are increasingly worrying aspects to our game that don’t seem to be getting fixed, and if anything appear to be becoming more of a problem as the weeks have gone on this season.
In attack we look lost. There’s no direction once we slot into phase play, we can’t dictate the tempo, there’s no imagination to set up a pre-called play. We have worked the pre-contact pop pass between the forwards a lot but fail to commit supporting players to secure the quick ball it can produce, and invariably either cough up possession or kick the ball away.
Defensively we’re all at sea, as we completely fail to organise after the opposition make even the slightest headway. This leaves defenders in one-on-one situations in the wider channels, often in mis-matches as forwards against backs, and results in missed tackles and more yards given up.
Work rate would appear to be an issue, as there’s no effort to cover supporting runners when the offload is on or get around the corner of the breakdown to cover shortfalls in the defensive line on the openside.
The lineout has also been a source of frustration, as attacking positions are literally thrown away with a lack of intensity in the move and intelligent lineout calling resulting in the opposition gladly taking possession of us.
There is no question the biggest area of mediocrity, and that’s putting it mildly, is in our game management though.
For 169 of the 240 minutes we’ve played in the Pro14 so far this season, we have been ahead. In each game we have led at the 76 minute mark, and yet we remain winless. Performances would have still been lacking, but you can build on wins, even the best teams have off-days. Losses ramp up the pressure, and right now we are under it. Big time.
The blame game
I can do this the long way, or the short way, and I’ll opt for the short way.
There’s no point picking out individuals, tagging people on Twitter or suggesting that we sack John Mulvihill three games into a three year contract, because it doesn’t help anyone and it diverts from the fact that nobody has emerged from the last three weeks with much credibility.
The coaches have to take the majority of the criticism in my view, as the performance of what is largely the same squad as last season has noticeably regressed with new styles and tactics. To put it simply, the players don’t look confident in how they are playing. They don’t seem to know what they are doing.
However, the players don’t get away scot free as they should have the intelligence and quality to play with their heads up, and with the experience running through the squad they should be capable of seeing games out in the closing stages.
They need to be looking at themselves in the mirror and questioning where the desire and commitment to play for each other and the jersey has gone.
Is it all doom and gloom?
There are positives to cling to, and we have to cling really tight to them, otherwise the pit of despair that is Sale away of last season might rear it’s head again.
On the field the scrum has been as solid as it’s been at any point in the last five years at least, while when we back ourselves on first phase ball we look almost unplayable.
The fact that we have been leading for the vast majority of games is also a plus point. We could be getting thrashed by 30 points every week and not even be close to winning games. Not much solace admittedly, but something is better than nothing!
We also have the precedent of previous seasons and other teams records to follow.
Last season saw Cardiff Blues go without a win for the first three games of the season and look how that worked out. It’s also worth noting that Scarlets, who struggled at the beginning of their time with largely unknown Wayne Pivac, lost the first three games of the 2016/17 season before winding up lifting the Pro12 trophy in Dublin.
There are also reasons, some might say excuses, behind the poor performances in Italy. Derwyn Jones alluded to the squad returning for pre-season late this summer in commentary against Zebre, and there appeared to be an impact on the fitness of players in both games.
The heat in Southern Europe (it was very hot in Treviso, you know) will have exacerbated that, and returning home to Cardiff for the next two weeks will be a blessing in that sense, while refereeing decisions haven’t all been favourable towards us so far. All aspects of the game out of our control though.
What needs to happen now is simple. Take things back to basics. There needs to be a mental toughness from the players to overcome the pressure that losing three leads late on will inevitably bring, and to avoid panicking at the idea of a lot of coaching inputs which will need to be handed out this week.
The coaches have to step up to the plate, get messages across in a clear and concise way. What worked last year was the detail put in to game plans, negating the issue we’ve had so far this season of players seemingly not knowing what they are doing on the field.
At this point I’m not expecting a particularly quick fix, but a good start on Friday at the Arms Park would be for the players to bust a gut. Let’s get back to taking pride in the performance, and results will follow.
For now, we as supporters have to get our moans with the first three weeks of the seasons off our chests and put them behind us. Only one way we’re going to get this season up and running, and it’s together.