Cardiff Blues served up a Halloween horror show in Bloemfontein as an abject performance resulted in a second loss of the week for John Mulvihill’s men.
Were it not for Cheetahs being an equally poor rugby team, the scoreline could well have been a cricket score. It leaves next week’s fixture against Zebre at the Arms Park suddenly taking on huge importance as Cardiff Blues slipped to fourth in Conference A with trips to Glasgow and Ulster on the horizon.
John Mulvihill made nine changes to the side which lost in the Heineken Cup last week, with many enforced as Dillon Lewis, Ellis Jenkins, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe were retained, while Kris Dacey was rested and a suspectly Team Wales influenced decision saw Seb Davies picked at number eight.
Despite the changes though, one thing stayed the same as Cardiff Blues got off to a nightmare start, conceding two tries inside the first 10 minutes of the game.
Cheetahs scrum-half and captain Shaun Venter capitalised on some sloppy defensive organisation for the first try, ghosting through a big gap from the base of a ruck before an error from Lloyd Williams while trying to counter attack offered possession to Sibhale Maxwane who chipped through and scored.
Tian Schoeman converted both tries for a 14-0 lead, and although Rhys Gill would win a scrum penalty for Steve Shingler to kick, things would only get worse for Cardiff Blues.
From an attacking lineout on the Cheetahs five-metre line the visitors set up a driving maul but the ball popped free from the back. It was claimed by a suspiciously offside looking Venter before he offloaded for the rapid Maxwane to break 80 metres and score his second try of the game, again converted by Schoeman.
Cardiff Blues had chances in the first half, most notably when Matthew Morgan released Jason Harries on the left hand side, but the winger cut back inside to eat up the space of Olly Robinson on the tracking line, and missed the wide open Lloyd Williams on an outside arc.
Issues were aplenty in defence, with a lack of structure allowing Cheetahs to break the line almost at will, and were it not for some decent scramble defence the game would have been gone by half-time.
As it happened the game was almost over as a contest just after half-time when the ever dangerous Malcolm Jaer broke from a kick return before finding Rhyno Smith on his shoulder, but the full-back was in front of his winger’s chip through before touching the ball down and the bonus point try was chalked off.
After that it was all-Cardiff Blues for the last 30 minutes. The introduction of Nick Williams and Samu Manoa made a big difference, making the decision, which may well have been a Team Wales one, to start Seb Davies at number eight all the more bizarre.
The young replacement front row of Rhys Carre, Liam Belcher and Kieron Assiratti were also impressive as a constant thorn in the Cheetahs side at scrum time, however every forward struggled to organise a decent lineout. Five were lost on our own ball in the end.
Cardiff Blues main issues came, once again, in attacking phase play though, with a lack of direction the seemingly a big reason in why we couldn’t translate possession and territory into points.
There seems to be a desire to commit as few players as possible to the breakdown to increase options in the attacking line, but that creates two problems, in that ball security in the ruck is dodgy at best, while it’s a case of too many cooks spoil the broth out wide.
Looking back to the Munster game at home, the beauty in our attacking play was it’s simplicity. A ball carrier and a latch, one extra man in to secure the ball and play, trusting the talent we have in our backs.
Even without the likes of Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe there was enough quality in our backline to cut through the Cheetahs, but more often than not it was a forward in the 10 metre tram lines out wide who caused the problem.
In the end the only score we could muster from a dominant final 25 minutes was from a Samu Manoa kick charge which he chased over the line and scored himself. Fittingly, the game finished on another Cardiff Blues attacking lineout error.
The performance against Munster, as well as that against Lyon and for the first part of games against Leinster and Zebre, have all come through different game plans, and there is a distinct impression that this Cardiff Blues team is still searching for an attacking identity.
Admittedly, the heat and altitude are always difficult to contend with in Bloemfontein, and there were a number of players who had not played in the Pro14 for some time, but the level of performance was still extremely disappointing.
What comes next is simple though. Try and spend time fixing the wrongs of Saturday evening and it’ll take close to a rugby lifetime. Instead, strip our game right back. Go back to basics and build it back up from the ground. Over-complicating messages will just make things worse.
We’ve got to put the Cheetahs game behind us and put all efforts into producing a huge response against Zebre next Sunday. For the players themselves, the coaches, and most importantly the supporters sake.
If we struggle on Sunday, with away games against Glasgow and Ulster to follow, the season could get away from us very quickly. Now is the time to pull together. Come on Cardiff!