In recent years there has been one constant when it comes to an area that Cardiff Blues excel in, and that is the defensive breakdown.
During the 2018/19 season we were the third best club side in the world on the floor, behind only the Jaguares and the Hurricanes, and once again in the 2019/20 season to-date it is John Mulvihill’s men who top the turnovers table in the Guinness Pro14 with 101 in 13 games.
With the likes of Josh Navidi, Nick Williams, Olly Robinson, Josh Turnbull, Will Boyde and Shane Lewis-Hughes in the back row ranks, as well as a number of tight five players more than adept over the ball, it’s become an almost unrivalled weapon.
However, while all that is superb, the time has come to look beyond how the work at the breakdown aids us defensively, and how it can aid us in attack as, along with all those impressive stats, there is another one which is that Cardiff Blues did not score one try on the back of a turnover in the 2019/20 season so far.
When you think about all the talent over the ball in the forward pack, there is at least an equal amount of counter attacking among the backs. Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Willis Halaholo, Rey Lee-Lo, Josh Adams, Owen Lane, Aled Summerhill and, of course, Matthew Morgan, just to name a few.
So why do we struggle to turn defence into attack? Having looked back through the games Cardiff Blues have played so far this season there’s a few reasons that come to light, starting with getting speed of ball either from a turnover or a kick return.
Effectively turning defence into attack is as much about what you’re doing as the opposition, but it’s what you’re doing as a team as much as it’s what is being done individually. Inserting structure where the game is un-structured in order to capitalise on gaps left by the opposition.
That structure needs to fall into place quickly though, before the opposition’s defence gets organised. Unfortunately on the occasions above there’s almost too much rigidity to the structure Cardiff Blues are waiting to put in place, resulting in waiting for a scrum-half to get the ball moving and killing any chance of a sharp counter attack.
This feeds into a wider point I’ve been making for some time about the need to either upskill the players, particularly in terms of their handling ability, or as is more likely the case I suspect, give them the confidence and freedom to showcase their skills by playing heads up rugby.
Looking at that example and we all know that Olly Robinson is an excellent rugby player in an attacking sense. The lines he cuts off a first receiver, the handling ability to take passes at full speed and his distribution when it is he who steps in at first receiver, but on this occasion he looks lost.
There appears to be little certainty over what the tactics are on a turnover ball and it ends up being a poor and conservative decision from Robinson to tuck it up his jumper and head down the blindside of the breakdown into a dead end.
Of course there is another aspect to the example above beyond Robinson’s actions, and that is what he sees when he should look to the openside. Instead of a well oiled machine slotting into place to counter attack quickly, there is a distinct lack of any shape, and that was a theme throughout.
On both occasions when the playmaker, Jarrod Evans in the first clip and Matthew Morgan in the second, get their hands on the ball they find no depth outside them. Nobody running angles or looking to move on to the ball.
In the end, particularly in the first clip, the lack of shape takes the pace out of the attack as the defence get organised and off the line to put an end to any hope of taking advantage of the turnover ball.
That lack of shape is what results in one of the biggest issues in our attacking game generally over the course of the season so far, and particularly when it comes to counter attacking, lateral running eating up the space that we want to play into.
Now I stress that this isn’t a criticism of Jarrod Evans, it’s a criticism of the general shape of the team that results in Evans as the playmaker looking for options outside him by running across the field in an effort to open up space.
On both occasions by the time the team has dropped into some sort of structure, the opposition has simply been able to drift towards the touchline and negate the counter attack, despite on both occasions there potentially being opportunity to move the ball early and get some dangerous runners in space.
What has really sparked this piece though has been watching Super Rugby Aotearoa over the last few weeks, and their use of what is one of the first skills learned in junior rugby, the simple catch, draw and pass.
It’s such a simple element of the game, but something that at times in Wales we don’t execute. It’s not solely a Cardiff Blues problem by any means, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to introduce it effectively as part of our counter attack.
On the whole it comes back to that improvement in skill levels that seems to hold us back when it comes to going forward. The lack of variance in some of our play, the amount of handling errors that have us conceding the 5th most turnovers in the Pro14, and the lack of offloads that leave us completing the 4th least in the league.
We have all the tools in the squad to be one of the most dangerous attacking outfits in the league, but until we develop the confidence to express ourselves, play what’s in front of us and have adequate systems in place to help us achieve that, we’ll continue to be a lower level team going forward.