Last weekend’s Cardiff Blues loss to Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium was a disappointing one on a number of levels for John Mulvihill, his coaching staff and the players.
It prevented us from going three from three during the festive Welsh derbies, continued a losing streak in Swansea that dates back to 2005, and left us on the back foot in the race for the Guinness Pro14’s Conference A play-offs.
Performance wise it was a game that saw us get sucked into the Ospreys game of kicking and mauling, as well as one that produced too many individual errors and ill-discipline. All in all one to forget.
There is some learning to do before we do that though, and it links in with a piece I wrote after the Dragons game using the statistics from our attacking game over the previous few weeks.
On Saturday we produced only three offloads, and although we beat 15 opposition defenders, we created just three line breaks. 57% possession and 53% territory, but only 322 metres made and less than three metres per carry. We are continually failing to use the ball well enough to compete.
So where does the problem stem from? Well, for me it starts with how we’re using our forwards during attacking phase play.
A tendency when there is a misfiring attack is to instantly lay the blame at the door of the backs who generally are the attackers in a team. There is a reason why the majority of top try scorers are wingers, after all.
However, to really get going they have to have a platform to play from, and more often than not that comes from the forwards. Front foot, but crucially quick ball is the lifeblood of attacking backs, and at the moment Cardiff Blues are struggling to secure either.
Our attacking formation is fairly standard, utilising the 1-3-3-1 shape that sees two carrying forwards form either side of the centre of the field, with an additional forward out towards the touchline.
This isn’t any great change from how we looked when in possession of the ball last season, but there are fundamental changes about how the carrying pods are attacking carrying the ball.
We have tried to develop our game so that each of the three forwards forming the pod is a carrying option in a bid to stretch that initial defence, causing one-on-one match-ups that will hopefully see the carrier either gain momentum through the tackle or use their footwork to gain front foot ball.
Unfortunately the evolution of rugby defences in recent years means that the initial defence is now virtually impenetrable by a one-up runner. With each Cardiff Blues forward offering themselves as a viable carrier, the two players who now find themselves in support roles are not close enough to latch.
All too often on Saturday the isolated runner was either held up easily, driven back comfortably or the Ospreys were able to get a jackal over the ball and slow our attack down. Each outcome prevented the backs from securing a platform to play from.
However, we don’t always help ourselves in this area of the game due to the game plan that appears to have been set out for the players.
By opting to use both carrying pods we are both slowing down our attack and cutting down on the space we are offering to the backs when we eventually move the ball out to them.
Considering the troubles looked at above in getting over the gain line and setting up quick rucks to add some tempo to our game, to go through two phases of that is just inflicting more pain on our attacking game.
A far better tactic would be to use the second pod as a dummy, setting up the screen pass that has been so successful for us in recent years, and indeed if the ball were to follow the dots on the first annotated image then Gareth Anscombe would receive the ball in space with a potential four-on-three overlap on the outside.
Unfortunately by the time we do get the ball into Anscombe’s hands on phase three, he is working inside the 10 metre channel on the edge of the pitch and Ospreys can employ the touchline as an extra defender. Unfortunately going the extra phase on the second carrying pod was not a one-time issue.
It almost feels like we’re trying to over-perfect the set up in attacking phase play, searching for that right moment to play through the backs and ignoring the fact that we have skilful backs more than capable of playing in an off-the-cuff fashion.
The other way of looking at it is that we are always playing as if we’re in the opposition 22, expecting them to defend so narrowly and then we shift the ball wide, before appearing shocked that the Ospreys find it so easy to drift and push us towards the touchline.
Either way, it is an attack that is currently misfiring, and attack/backs coach Jason Strange has some thinking and tinkering to do if he is to get it going before heading into the crucial Six Nations stage of the Pro14 season.
If we don’t start putting teams to the sword and imposing our style of play on opposition sides, especially at the Arms Park, it could well be a disappointing second half of the season.