It was a disappointing start to the home campaign for Cardiff Blues on Saturday as John Mulvihill’s men went down 11-19 against Edinburgh at the Arms Park.
Aside from the scrum in the first 60 minutes, the lineout success rate (although not necessarily the lineout as a whole), and Owen Lane’s try, there was little to shout home about for the hosts.
Missed tackles, a fairly aimless kicking game, a number of handling errors and a lack of cutting edge in attack all contributed to what was an underwhelming performance that ultimately yielded no league points.
Fortunately these are, on the whole, quick fixes. Switches in mentality and execution will solve at least three of the four issues in that list, which could be done as quickly as the trip to Glasgow this weekend.
However, a tactical switch that should be considered is one to our carrying game which, unsurprisingly to many, struggled to front up physically against Edinburgh on Saturday night.
On two occasions in the first half on Saturday night, both immediately after Cardiff Blues scored, we were turned over when trying to setup exit plays from the resulting kick-offs. This is due to the issue with the carrying game, which starts when trying to leave our own territory.
For as long as I’ve been analysing us in-depth we have operated with a fairly straight forward 1-3-3-1 formation, spreading the forwards across the field with two clearly defined carrying pods central to the attacking game.
On both of the above occasions the pods are structured too loosely in an attempt to trick the defence into thinking that any one of the three Cardiff Blues players will be carrying, hopefully resulting in one-on-one tackles which allow us to get over the gainline and set up the box kick cleanly.
What we should see is a picture such as this though, where Dmitri Arhip acts as the latch on ball carrier Nick Williams. In effect it is sealing off, but as long as the prop is smart enough to give the impression that he is supporting his own body weight, then possession can be retained without offering Edinburgh the opportunity of a turnover.
Back to the two original clips, and the support for Olly Robinson in both is some distance away as that attempt to deceive the defence is in action, resulting in the flanker having to carry solo into contact and spilling the ball, before conceding a penalty for holding on.
Running the latch gives up the gainline but secures possession and allows us to clear safely, and there is a similar story when it comes to using our carrying game in attacking positions.
The carrying pods are set up in attack to try and give that same impression that any of the three forwards could carry, with the added option of the out-of-the-back pass to Jarrod Evans, but once again the structure of the pod is too loose for carrying.
I especially want to highlight the second clip as Brad Thyer takes the ball at first receiver, dummies the out-of-the-back pass but ends up almost stopped as he takes the ball into contact.
That loose pod structure then sees the other players in the pod, Josh Turnbull and Rory Thornton, end up beyond Thyer and have to come back to complete the clearout. If the Edinburgh player gets into a better body position then a turnover is on the cards, but as it is Cardiff Blues have to play off slow, back-foot ball.
The other downside to our carrying game at the moment is something I would like to ban from the game more than tip tackles and high shots…pop passes.
On an idea level I understand the premise. Shifting the point of the carry slightly as the defence rush up on the first receiver, hopefully allowing the ball carrier to either make a line break or be able to get over the gainline over a one-on-one tackle.
The issue with much of our usage comes from the fact that we use it as means to generate quick ball from slow ball, which sees the defenders on the fringe of the breakdown in good position to get around the corner and get over the ball, with our pod once again in a fractured state and unable to clearout quickly.
If there absolutely must be a time to use the pop pass, then it’s in a situation such as this, on the back of a strong counter attack from Matthew Morgan.
The defence are not set and coming into the phase on the back foot, so that when Olly Robinson draws the defender at first receiver, Josh Turnbull the ball carrier can get over the gainline, and crucially there are no opposition players in a position to get over the ball, therefore possession is quickly available to Lloyd Williams.
And while the pop pass is the option for the loose pod structure when we are already going forward then, just as when exiting, the latch carry is the option to generate the quick ball.
It does not have to be as obvious and safe as the exit play, when Arhip was already bound to Williams, but looking at the first clip the pod gets tighter as it approaches contact, resulting in Robinson being in position to secure possession quickly when Arhip goes to ground and the ball is available at speed for Lloyd Williams.
This is where the title of ‘walk before you run’ originates from, as it felt on Saturday as if Cardiff Blues were trying to play an expansive game without properly troubling the defence through getting quick ball or forcing them to commit players into contract and getting narrower.
John Mulvihill spoke after the game about going through phases and building pressure, well shortening and simplifying the carrying game will certainly go some way to doing that.
Then the onus is on the backs to execute when the time comes to play slightly wider, rather than falling back into the trap of attacking laterally due to the carrying game not functioning as it should.