Cardiff Blues’ unlikely victory against Benetton on Saturday was a performance that could be the catalyst to spark this season into life after a slow start.
It was a win that had parts of all areas of the game to thank; a powerful set piece game, particularly the driving maul which yielded two tries, a patient attacking game, and the goal kicking of Jason Tovey, who did what the hosts’ Tommaso Allan couldn’t and went 100% off the tee.
However, the area I want to focus on is one that has taken a fair bit of criticism at times over the last 18 months, sometimes justified but sometimes harshly, the defence.
In terms of actually how it went against Benetton, defence coach Richard Hodges may not be totally happy with his unit’s performance. Four tries and 28 points conceded, 26 tackles missed for an 85% tackle completion rate and 13 line breaks given up aren’t top notch stats, although the difference in squad availability does have to be taken into account.
What was really impressive about the Cardiff Blues performance without the ball on Saturday though was the scramble defence as, particularly in the first half, the Italians broke our line on a number of occasions but failed to turn those chances into points.
Rewind a few weeks and against Munster it felt like as soon as they broke our defensive line they were turning breaks into tries with ease, and even last week Leicester only needed one chance to get around the edge of our defence and over the line.
Against Benetton that was all change though as the workrate and awareness of our retreating defenders cut passing lanes and support runners off, as well as ensured that we could re-organise quickly and snuff out any danger over the subsequent one or two phases.
The sheer quantity of Cardiff Blues players getting back around the breaking Benetton attacker is impressive to say the least, denying him any chance to find a supporting runner on his shoulder or offload after contact, as the defenders crowd the tackle area until the ruck is formed and then immediately drift to fill the defensive line.
That then leaves the home side with the attacking picture shown in the second image and clip where, although there is a chance of a two-on-one at the edge of the defence on the blindside, the speed with which we re-organise allows us to get off the line quickly and keep them narrow.
Indecision reigns in the Benetton attack and they end up stabbing a kick though, which is covered well by Matthew Morgan thanks to the extra seconds the defence has allowed him to get back into position.
There was a similar look not long after as well, except this time the speed with which we reset defensively and then get off the line allows us to cause even more problems for the Italians.
Once again the amount of Cardiff Blues players closer to the attacking Benetton player is impressive, giving him nowhere to go but into contact and to ground.
Although there is another chance of an overlap on the edge, Hallam Amos does brilliantly to blitz on the outside of the defence and the line speed brought by Macauley Cook and Josh Turnbull allows the former to block a kick through that potentially would have pinned us back in our own corner.
Focusing on the initial aspect of that scramble defence for a moment, even when Benetton mixed up their attack in the second half, the work rate of the Cardiff Blues defence to fill the space around the attack was noticeable, especially important when defending against someone like Monty Ioane.
The cross kick is well executed and gives Ioane the chance to stretch his legs, but with a strong tackle from Jason Tovey, even though he gets the offload away Benetton fail to properly capitalise.
That hard work from the Cardiff Blues defence once again prevents them from pushing forward and making a positive offload, instead just offloading to keep the ball alive, and when the ball is scrappy from the subsequent breakdown there are a number of blue jerseys on hand to force the home side backwards and slow them down.
On top of that work rate though is the skillset that we have become famous for over the last few years, as we manage to turn scramble defence into turnover inside three phases.
Up to this point the scenario is similar to the first two scramble defences shown earlier in the piece, whereby Cardiff Blues get numbers around the Benetton attacker before resetting quickly in the defensive line and preventing the home side take advantage of any disarray during the next phase.
It’s what happens in the second phase after the line break that is so impressive though.
We are back in a strong defensive shape already and as Benetton try to go through a phase that moves them away from the touchline, Will Boyde is on hand to get in a strong position over the ball and earn one of the four jackal turnovers that we won on the day.
The amount of line breaks conceded out in Italy certainly was not ideal, but knowing you’ve got such a high quality scramble defence to fall back on should give the defence as a whole confidence to maintain the high intensity blitz defence that we saw the partial return of on Saturday.
If we can use that as a basis to build on against a direct and physical Pau side over the next few weeks, leading into the Welsh derbies over Christmas, then we can be a match for anyone as the attacking game continues to improve week-to-week.