Two steps forward, one step back: The story of Cardiff Blues’ 2019/20 season

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When history reflects on Cardiff Blues 2019/20 season it will only be memorable for what happened off the field, or rather what didn’t happen on it.

If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic sending rugby union into lockdown with the rest of the country then the definition of the word ‘mediocre’ in the Oxford English Dictionary would have simply read ‘Cardiff Blues in the second season under John Mulvihill’.

It seems a world away now, and there’s a certain level of guilt over moaning about so consistently, but there was a hefty five month gap between the end of the 2018/19 campaign and the start of 2019/20, with the Rugby World Cup causing one of the longest pre-seasons in the professional era.

On the back of that the expectation for the Cardiff Blues increased slightly. Yes there was concern over elements of the squad, particularly the size of the pack after the back three was bolstered during the recruitment window and the tight five neglected due to Project Reset, but there was a feeling that a proper pre-season and a World Cup window would give us a great chance to start well.

After a first year under Mulvihill, and with a slight change to the backroom staff with Richie Rees replacing Jason Strange as attack coach, there was an opportunity to mould our game to our strengths in an effort to ‘do a Connacht’ after the Irish side won what was then the Pro12 in 2015.

Yes Dillon Lewis, Josh Navidi and Tomos Williams were away with Wales, but in comparison to the likes of Scarlets, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Munster, Leinster, Benetton and Zebre we were not hard hit by international call-ups, with Hallam Amos and Josh Adams not particularly missed as they had never even trained with Cardiff Blues, and Owen Lane only a very late call-up for the third place play-off.

So to fast-forward from the eve of the season on the 27th September to the day after the fifth game, and the day after the World Cup Final, on the 3rd November and find ourselves with one win from five games was a huge disappointment.

The bonus-point win over the Southern Kings wasn’t convincing but it was five points in the first point of the season away in South Africa and a good base to build from. However, from there things went backwards quickly with losses at home to Edinburgh, away at Glasgow and Ulster, and then back at home to Munster.

More frustrating was the manner of the losses. None were by more than 10 points, but especially against Glasgow, Ulster and Munster it was 20 minute periods that took the games away from us as we failed to put together an 80 minute performance during games that were either winnable or we should have at least taken points from.

Even at that early stage in the season it felt like the Guinness Pro14 play-offs were a long way off, and over the next two months is where the ‘two steps forward, one step back’ description of 2019/20 is derived as for the next nine games the form guide showed; WWLWWLWWL

This resulted in the chance to reach the knockout stage of the European Challenge Cup slipping away as even though wins over Calvisano and Pau at home resulted in try bonus points being secured, defeats against Leicester Tigers and away at Pau were truly disappointing outings as once again winnable games went down as losses in the record books.

Interestingly, during that time Cardiff Blues did win four Pro14 games in a row, including the superb victory away at Benetton when a time stripped by international call-ups went up against a full strength Italian outfit and a first win away at Ospreys for a decade, but the general inconsistency prevented any proper momentum being built up.

As 2019 turned to 2020 that showed once again as the Scarlets took a narrow 14-16 win away from the Arms Park in another game that John Mulvihill’s men could have won, and when a second loss to Leicester was suffered at Welford Road any possibility of a competitive season was realistically over with only a huge turnaround in form likely to secure any post-season rugby.

During the second international break as the Six Nations came around the worst performance of the season, a 29-0 loss away at Connacht in a game that was must-win if the campaign was to be saved, was the real low point. A truly abject performance in every facet.

In the last game before lockdown an injury hit squad showed their heart and character in a brave performance away at Edinburgh, but really the season being suspended and ultimately truncated probably prevented us from just seeing it out with a whimper.

All-in-all an inability, often due to a lack of physicality up front, to consistently dominate games left us incapable of putting together a run of more than two wins back-to-back, and contributed to us failing to grind out wins in games where a victory was within reach.

If we are to go to the next level we have to be able to turn those narrow losses into wins, playing to our strengths rather than attempting to nullify the opposition and struggling to switch away from that plan A when things start to go wrong.

2019/20, one to forget!

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