As Christmas comes and goes, and a rugby-less Boxing Day void of regional derbies is overcome, focus sharpens on this weekend’s Cardiff Blues trip to Scarlets.
Now at the mid-point of this fixture block which began in late November and will run through to the end of January, John Mulvihill’s men have just one win to show from the five games so far, and that having come in last Friday’s disappointing performance against 14-man Dragons.
We now sit fifth in the Guinness Pro14’s Conference A, five points back from Ospreys and Connacht who are level in third place, but crucially with both sides to play home and away still.
The trip to Swansea and home game against the Galway-based team both form part of the second half of this fixture block, as do tough away games at Scarlets in the league and Glasgow Warriors in the Heineken Champions Cup, leaving Cardiff Blues with little time to get their act together in the coming weeks.
Certain areas of our game persist in being an issue. Defence is fighting to hold on at times and continues to come undone by any opposition attacker running a short cut back line off the first receiver, while the lineout is looking increasingly shaky.
For me though the main area of concern has been the attack which, with the exception of the second half away at Glasgow during which the home side had visibly stopped playing with the game already won, has failed to put together any sort of cogent performance.
A full analysis will likely follow when normal service resumes on the Cardiff Rugby Life, but for now a quick look at the stats of the last few weeks will have to suffice just to underline some basic issues that seem to be infesting themselves among our attacking game.
The standard starting point is to look at the point scored, which over the last five games averages 17. Generally this points to two tries scored per game, neither of which are enough when you are expecting to compete at the top end of the league and Europe.
There are some more complex reasons for this which are too difficult to explain without the guidance of clips and annotated images, but they boil down to structural issues that effect our forward carrying pods and the speed of ball they create, as well as the shape of our midfield during phase play.
This is likely to come back to attack coach Jason Strange who, while head coach of the Wales U20s side oversaw a side who were comfortable playing unstructured rugby in an off-the-cuff manner, but appears to be having trouble devising and implementing a gameplan for a senior professional team.
However, there are a few other areas from the statistics that leap off the page as a cause for concern going forward.
Something that concerns me greatly, especially when considering the quality that we have in the squad, is that we are averaging less than four offloads per game currently. Not because we can’t pull them off, but because they are seemingly actively discouraged.
Offloads are a brilliant way to unlock a defence. If you watch the French Top14 it feels at times like these players are coached to offload before being taught to pass regularly, such is the frequency of their use. They can change the point of attack or release a runner in an instant, which makes it bizarre that Cardiff Blues are currently so averse to them.
Plenty of times over the last few weeks there have been opportunities to offload despite the fact that we don’t actively attempt to get arms through tackles and put support runners on shoulders, but they are not taken and as a result it is no surprise that, leaving aside that second half in Glasgow, we are averaging less than six line breaks per game.
Considering we’re beating about 16 defenders per game, it offers a picture of how ineffective our attacking is in that the opposition are able to cover any missed tackles with ease. There’s no danger of us creating anything in midfield at this point.
Part of the reason for that is the telegraphed nature of our attacking system, and an inability to get the ball to the wings early and leave them with any sort of space to work with.
Excluding the half-backs, the backs as a unit have made less than 17 passes per game, and that includes when Matthew Morgan and Dan Fish slot in at first receiver, something which happens fairly regularly in our attack as a hangover from the Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe axis at fly-half and full back.
When you’ve got an average of only just over 2.5m per carry, it means you’re stuck in a stagnating, one-dimensional attack that offers little go forwards and an has an inability to break down opposition defences, despite clearly having the firepower to cause them big problems.
If we are to make this second half of the fixture block, and the season as a whole, a success then the attack needs to start clicking, and start clicking quickly. Otherwise the Challenge Cup and Pro14 obscurity will become our friend again very quickly.