This Saturday sees John Mulvihill take charge of Cardiff Blues in a Welsh derby for the first time as we make the short trip to Rodney Parade for a meeting with the Dragons.
It comes at a good time for the team, on the back of two important home wins against Conference A rivals Munster and Cheetahs. As we know though, form counts for little when it comes to Welsh derbies.
In terms of this week’s analysis, rather than just looking at why we didn’t win by a more comfortable margin against Cheetahs (if you’re wondering, it’s as simple as converting line breaks into tries and mixing up the attack to negate their line speed), I thought we’d have a wider look at a specific part of our game; the defensive lineout and maul.
It is particularly prevalent this week given that the Dragons main weapon against us has in recent years, and likely will be again on Saturday, been the strength of their pack at the set piece. A pack which has only been boosted by the arrivals of Aaron Jarvis, Richard Hibbard, Brandon Nansen and Ross Moriarty.
Rewind a few months and I was writing about this subject after we had beaten Pau, praising the tactics we utilised to stop a hugely powerful French pack in the European Challenge Cup semi-final.
Fast forward to now, and we seem to be struggling with a mish-mash of ideas to stop opposition sides at the driving maul, and have so far failed to steal one lineout.
We have conceded tries twice from driving mauls, and you can trace our troubles back to the pre-season trip to face Exeter Chiefs which has appeared to knock our confidence in defending at lineouts.
In an attempt to put a stop to teams literally driving over us we have tried to mix up our maul defence, including the above attempt to sack the opposition’s lineout jumper to disrupt the organisation of the maul.
Unfortunately this hasn’t worked for two reasons. Firstly, we have been penalised a number of times for the sacking of the jumper, and secondly as the clip shows, if the opposition have already transferred the ball to the back of the maul, the sacking of the jumper just clears a path to attack straight through the middle of our defence.
The second tactic utilised a lot so far this season has been to purposely not compete at the lineout no matter where it is thrown to in an attempt to immediately push the opposition back as they try to get set.
The issue here is that with such an easy claim at the lineout, Benetton have so much time to get themselves organised into a strong mauling position before the jumper is down and can counteract any drive from Cardiff Blues, eventually spinning away from us and driving towards the line.
So how do we negate the threat of a strong opposition maul? For my money it all comes at the lineout itself.
When looking at mauls in general, the likelihood is that once it has been up and running for around 10 seconds, the outcome is either a penalty for the attacking side or, if within striking distance, a try.
Stopping the maul via the lineout is the quickest way to disrupt it, but it’s not possible if you don’t get the lineout itself right.
Cardiff Blues are most effective at the lineout when operating in defence as above, with two clear jumping pods at the middle and at the back of the set piece and conceding the area at the front.
This breaks down when we fail to stay in shape, or ditch the shape altogether though.
When the back pod steps forward, as it does here, it leaves them in no-man’s land and an opposition pod free to aim for at the back of the lineout. This is where the best ball is from a throw-in, as it opens up more opportunities when coming off the top and means the defence have to get to the maul before lining up to push back.
Alternatively, when Cardiff Blues shirk their own shape instead of sticking with our own game, we are inevitably left trying to play catch up with the opposition’s lineout routine. Without set lifting pods it would take some amazing speed, excellent communication and a degree of luck to get a player up into the air and competing.
The beauty of the setup shown earlier which we should be adopting every time is that it gives you flexibility.
When the opposition throw to the middle or to the back, no matter what move the opposition choose to use, the two jumping pods are ready to go up.
Although we have failed to steal any lineout ball so far this season, we have on occasion been able to get up and disrupt the opposition’s ability to get good ball off the top by competing from one of the two jumping pods.
Most noticeably though, when we jump to compete and the opposition come down to set up for a maul, on the vast majority of occasions. Forcing the throwing team to concentrate on securing the ball for longer before switching to the maul means they are not as well set when it comes to the drive.
The Cardiff Blues jumper can get amongst the drive easier as the pillar around which we base our defence, allowing our maul swimmers to get amongst our opponents or simply putting an end to their drive.
Alternatively, that lineout defensive formation offers a second way to avoid being stung by a strong driving maul, and it’s in the space given up at the front, rather than that which is covered.
By conceding that area, if the opposition choose to throw to the front of the lineout then we have the perfect opportunity to push them towards the touchline, as worked very successfully against Cheetahs last week, assuming our players are driving legally.
In the end it leaves the only safe option for the opposition to throw to the front and come off the top, but it leaves them without any decent attacking ball.
The distance the ball has to travel from the scrum-half to the fly-half means the defensive line can fly up and get into contact behind the gain line, as well as giving the likes of Ellis Jenkins the opportunity to move forward to a breakdown and get over the ball.
I don’t claim to be a fully qualified rugby analyst, but what I hope to bring across is that large parts of rugby are actually quite simple. In this instance it’s play your own game and make the opposition do the work.
As the season and the quality of opponents develop, as should the game plan, but for Cardiff Blues this season it has felt at times that we are running before we can walk with some elaborate set pieces and defensive setups.
Saturday’s match will no doubt be an exciting Welsh derby, and the set piece will play a huge part. If we can achieve at least parity, our open play ability should be enough to see us through. Come on Cardiff!