Analysis: The ultimate left field selection

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When John Mulvihill revealed during the build up to the first instalment of the Cardiff Blues v Saracens double header that he had a trick up his sleeve, nobody expected the team selection that would follow.

To see Gareth Anscombe and Jarrod Evans names on the teamsheet is not unusual, to see them at fly-half and inside centre is unheard of, but that’s how they found themselves lining up at Allianz Park with Anscombe in the 10 jersey and the strange site of Evans wearing number 12.

With Willis Halaholo, Rey Lee-Lo and Jack Roberts all injured, Mulvihill was shorn of a first or even second choice midfield, but there were still options including Garyn Smith, young players like Cameron Lewis or Max Llewelyn, or Steve Shingler who has plenty of inside centre experience though.

Anscombe and Evans forming the 10-12 axis it was though, and right from the off in North London the attacking shape was clear to see.

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The very first attacking set of the game for Cardiff Blues saw us trying to play off the first receiver, rather than off the scrum-half as we had done away at Ulster last week in the Pro14.

Slotting Jarrod Evans in at 12, rather than dropping Gareth Anscombe to full-back, put both playmakers at or close to that first receiver slot and constantly opened up the possibility of the pull back pass.

With first the forwards and then Harri Millard looking to offer themselves on the short line, and Anscombe holding position close to the line, the aim is to fix the outside defender and put the likes of Matthew Morgan and Blaine Scully, in this instance, into the highlighted space in the outside channel.

Unfortunately on this occasion, and one or two others, that plan did not work as the outside defender was not fixed by an attack that didn’t quite play close enough to the line, nor did it utilise the outside runners correctly to take advantage of the space.

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Saracens’ line speed was such that the carrying options on Gareth Anscombe’s outside shoulder had to play a yard deeper than we would have liked, thus allowing Alex Lozowski highlighted by the black line in the first image to keep Dillon Lewis and Jarrod Evans in his line of vision.

When the ball slides back to Evans he is able to drift across early and close down the outside space with Alex Lewington, pushing Cardiff Blues towards the touchline.

This is compounded by the shape of Harri Millard, Seb Davies and Blaine Scully who are deep to Evans but flat to each other, thus not causing the defenders any problems with their pace or running angles.

Ideally Millard’s line would almost resemble that of someone on a crash ball, further fixing Lozowski and setting up a two-on-one in the outside channel, although Evans himself can assist with this in taking the ball to the line and turning the defender square. When this happened it worked well.

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A better short option from Kirby Myhill is the key starter to this phase which holds Will Skelton and Schalk Burger narrow, before Jarrod Evans catching the attention of Owen Farrell on the inside creates the space on the outside.

The advantage of having Evans’ distribution at inside centre then pays off as he identifies the miss-pass and Jason Harries makes yards out wide in space opened up despite the point of the attack being changed to just the 10 metre channel out wide.

That distribution also came in handy deeper into phase play when Cardiff Blues split the attack.

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With Jarrod Evans holding the attention of the majority of the Saracens defence at first receiver on the openside, Gareth Anscombe slides onto the blindside where Lloyd Williams finds him in a yard of space.

Unfortunately the home side’s line speed swallows up Samu Manoa’s carry and results in the attackers outside of Anscombe not quite forming up properly in time for the phase and the fly-half opts for the chip over the top only to be charged down.

However, it is an encouraging sign to see an overlap featuring two very mobile forwards in the shapes of Kirby Myhill and Dillon Lewis, and dangerous backs Matthew Morgan and Jason Harries, almost get set on that blindside to be marshalled by Anscombe.

Even though he is charged down, the idea itself isn’t even that bad as Saracens leave a lot of space on that blindside.

When you consider that Anscombe and Evans did not even get the chance to run through their 10-12 partnership until training on Friday, and had just one session to nail down some detail, the signs were certainly encouraging during Sunday’s first half which saw Cardiff Blues lead 13-18.

Unfortunately the ‘experiment’, if that’s the right word to describe it, was cut short by a painful looking left shoulder injury suffered by Jarrod when making a tackle late in the first half, perhaps highlighting the fact that he is not quite defensively robust to play inside centre regularly.

There may well have been enough evidence to see this tactic wheeled out again at some point in the future though, with it offering us the chance to see Anscombe, Evans and Matthew Morgan take the field together.

Perhaps add in a Willis Halaholo, Rey Lee-Lo or Owen Lane to the picture and it could become even more effective. One to watch, and a good sign that John Mulvihill is not prepared to throw caution to the wind in the big games.

I, for one, am encouraged.

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