Analysis: The Edwards way

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That November 2017 game against Zebre was a big step on turning the corner from a slow start to the 17/18 campaign towards an unbeaten second half of the season.

Earlier in the week I looked at why those first two months of the season had been such a disappointment, with a mention for the lack of match preparation offered by pre-season, as Cardiff Blues only faced London Scottish and Exeter ahead of the Guinness Pro14 getting underway.

While most other sides play three pre-season games these days, our two left us noticeably off the pace in the opening few rounds of the competition, alongside having less training time generally after starting back late, and in my opinion played a big part in that slow start.

What we saw against Zebre was a change though, a move towards an intense and organised defensive system that complemented an attack that was packed full of talent and even provided that attack with a platform thanks to the turnover rate.

In the three league games prior to that Zebre fixture Cardiff Blues had conceded 30 points against Scarlets, 29 against Dragons and 39 against Munster, but the eight points conceded against the Italian side would be comfortably the least of the season so far.

Over the summer before the season Shaun Edwards had joined the coaching set up at the Arms Park, coming in as a defensive consultant spending one day a week in training and the underlying principle to the Cardiff Blues defensive system was that high-speed and organised blitz that has become Edwards’ signature.

As the fitness levels increased among the squad that consistency and intensity of that blitz got better and better with the above example coming in the final 10 minutes of the game with Zebre losing at least 10 metres in two phases.

The key though was getting ourselves into a position where we could continually get that defensive line set up and ready to blitz, and that came via challenging on the floor but also lengthening the tackle time.

Three phases back-to-back see attempts by Cardiff Blues defenders to hold Zebre ball carriers up, with a turnover opportunity in the final clip, but a successful defensive set sees the Italian side losing around 10 metres once again.

With the work on the floor his brought two elements to the defensive system as firstly it allows the defence to reset either after a line break or, as in the instance below, on first phase play as Nick Williams gets over the ball allowing players to get around the breakdown and form up.

The extra few seconds that Nick Williams buys by slowing the ball down allows three forwards to get from the lineout to the openside of the defence, as well as Olly Robinson to get back to his feet after making the tackle and rejoin the line.

More than that though the work on the floor can turn defence into attack, giving the players the chance to show off their skills in a turnover situation, with the space created from the lack of structure perfect for Cardiff Blues to break into.

This move starts with Zebre making a half-break and heading into our territory but a Gethin Jenkins jackal slows them down and allows us to recover our defensive shape.

As scramble defence turns into pushing Zebre back, Gethin Jenkins is able to spot blitz and turn the ball carrier for Nick Williams to secure the turnover. The counter attack sees the ball moved wide for Lloyd Williams to break and score the game’s opening try.

With 127 tackles and winning 16 turnovers on the day it was an accomplished defensive performance from Cardiff Blues, and one that would be replicated in key games against Toulouse, Munster, Edinburgh and Pau on the way to a strong second half of the season and the Challenge Cup Final in Bilbao.

The influence of Shaun Edwards, working with Richard Hodges, took us a long way that season, and elements of that system remain with Cardiff Blues winning the third most turnovers of any professional club in the world during the 2018/19 season.

With Gethin Jenkins moving through the coaching ranks operating a very familiar system it seems the shadow of Edwards will hold over the Arms Park for some time yet.

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