Friday night saw Cardiff Blues finally get their season underway as Munster were dispatched thanks to a 37-13 scoreline that gave John Mulvihill his first win as head coach, and a bonus point win at that.
It was a superb performance from the home side at the Arms Park who put the Irish side to the sword with incisive attacking, led by Willis Halaholo, while the boot of Gareth Anscombe gave us a comfortable enough lead to develop the confidence to go on and score the fourth try after 10+ phases of offence.
A slight concern for the Cardiff Blues coaches will be the defence though, which will go slightly under the radar as having under-performed on the night.
Munster, for all their talent on paper, came with a rather tepid attacking performance in all honesty, failing to fire any real shots as their backline looked like it was lacking match sharpness. Duncan Williams didn’t offer a lot of good ball from scrum-half, Jaco Taute appeared off the pace at 13 and JJ Hanrahan was anonymous at full-back.
The most obvious weak link was Joey Carbery though. The man who was subject to so much speculation over the summer as he moved from Leinster to Munster appeared to have the weight of the world on his shoulders, with even more experienced team-mates seemingly relying on the fly-half to produce moments of magic to inspire the visitors.
Having said all that, the Cardiff Blues defence did not have a flawless performance, with 16 missed tackles adding to the 45 missed across two games on the mini-Italian tour in the weeks before Friday’s game.
The problem stems from the organisation of the defensive line and how it leaves defenders either in awkward body positions when making one-on-one tackles, or having to make desperate tackles as they cover too much ground in a defensive line.
A major contributing factor to the poor organisation of the defensive line is how quickly Cardiff Blues players are forming up in defence and getting around corners to get into any sort of decent defensive shape.
That can come from communication as the defensive leaders need to be organising their team-mates to cover both sides of a breakdown, particularly in and around the fringes, but even good communication is wasted if someone doesn’t have the legs to cover the ground asked of them.
Fitness has been an apparent issue throughout the season so far, as a shortened pre-season training block and only two pre-season friendlies have left us somewhat short on match sharpness. As a result, our high intensity defence strategy has faltered as the players have struggled to keep pace with it.
A side effect of the defensive organisation being off is that just a single mistake can lead to a big gain of ground for the opposition.
With Cardiff Blues running narrow on the right hand side all it takes is for Tomos Williams to step in on the first receiver and Willis Halaholo is forced to follow on the dummy runner leaving Jason Harries exposed on his own as the last man.
As we are so narrow and not getting numbers around the breakdown sufficiently, wider defenders can’t afford to trust inside defenders who just aren’t there, therefore they have to step in on dummy runners threatening to break through the middle of the defence and leave wide attackers in plenty of space.
Apart from the above example, Munster failed to take advantage of this on the while, preferring instead to constrict their attacking to one-up runners from their pack and send their hard running centres into contact. It was a different story against Zebre the week before though.
My concern going forward is that, like Zebre, Cheetahs will pose a real wide and running attacking threat this Friday night as they come to the Arms Park.
Whereas Munster were much more conventional the South Africa and Italian sides are somewhat looser in their attacking style and prepared to take risks to get the ball into space and to players who can cause damage.
With the Cardiff Blues defence already narrow, a long pass cuts out two defenders and puts Zebre in a position where they have an attacking three-on-one in the wide channel and make forward ground, as well as further testing the legs of our players to drift and scramble.
Then when the spacing in the defensive line gets wider as we try to cover the danger players from the back three, it leaves inside defenders exposed to one-on-ones in midfield.
Teams like Zebre and Cheetahs with their ‘play from anywhere’ ethos then have offloads at the heart of their game plan and as they get over their opposite defender they can get their arms free and release team-mates running support lines.
Cardiff Blues players are then too far away to provide a tackle assist due to their spacing and a return to the previous point that we are lacking fitness at the moment.
Fortunately there were positive signs for John Mulvihill’s men against Munster which we can keep improving on.
The line speed from Cardiff Blues was much improved on Friday as we looked more comfortable at home, in familiar weather conditions and with another week of match action under our belts.
There is still the risk of Cheetahs being able to go wide in a similar phase to this, but with Owen Lane in prime position to make a play, whether it’s an interception or a hit on the link player, it increases the risk of throwing a miracle pass.
The big improvement against Munster was the organisation of the initial defensive line though as we got two players to the ball carrier quickly and prevented them from producing many offloads to slice right through the middle of the defence.
Another example of the improved fitness of the team as the weeks continue, but also the perceived desire of the players that we see from the terraces to bust a gut for the jersey and for team-mates.
Is the defence at the confidence level it was in the second half of last season? No it’s not. The important thing is that it’s improving though, and as long as there is an upward curve in performance levels it is difficult to criticise.
Cheetahs will pose a different threat to that which Munster presented, and we’ll have to work hard to contain them, but we can do so in the knowledge that we can score from anywhere and as long as we make just a few plays in defence then it will be another dominant Cardiff Blues performance.