When Cardiff Blues went down to 14-men early in the second half during Friday’s Guinness Pro14 season opener away at Zebre I’m sure there were many who feared the worst.
When it comes to timing, the 42nd minute is just behind the first 15 minutes for part of the game you don’t want to pick up a red card, as there is no opportunity for the coaches to get the players together and work out how to deal with the loss of a player.
Instead the leaders on the field have to figure it out for themselves, and fortunately Cardiff Blues had plenty of players to turn to on Friday, with Dmitri Arhip, Cory Hill, Lloyd Williams and Rey Lee-Lo all on hand to re-group and organise. It is a very encouraging sign after a few years where on-field leadership had been questioned.
The set piece was worked out quickly with the lineout still able to steal possession regularly, while the scrum was strong and in some ways the attack actually looked more dangerous with 14 than it did with the full 15.
However it was defence where Cardiff Blues really stood up, restricting Zebre to just the three points they scored on the back of the penalty conceded when the red card was issued in the remaining 36 minutes of the game.
It started with the kick chase that was needed regularly as Cardiff Blues opted to play the percentages well and kicked often from inside our own half rather than risk conceding a turnover and immediately being on the back foot. Good game management from half-back and the back three.
At times our kick chase has been disorganised, rather than lazy, over the past two years, but solid work against Zebre kept a back three that had good broken field running potential in check, preventing them from getting on to the front foot through their kick return.
A physical edge to the tackling drives the home side back in the first clip, and then the second clip really shows off the organisation as nobody over-chases despite the kick return threatening the edge, instead they hold steady and the ball carrier turns back into a wall of white jerseys.
Then settling in to defensive phase play, the noticeable change came from Cardiff Blues moving away from our greatest defensive strength and the area of the game that gives us identity; the jackal.
In both the clips there is an opportunity to get over the ball and effect a turnover, with James Botham and Shane Lewis-Hughes lurking as the ball carrier goes beyond contact and his support and leaves himself susceptible to the jackal.
However, as effective as both flankers are over the ball, it’s not a 100% success rate, therefore the call was clearly made to avoid the jackal in favour of keeping defenders on their feet. Botham and Lewis-Hughes move into the guard position meaning each defender along the line can take a step out, keeping the same number of players in the defensive line as if we were defending with 15.
After the first half during which Zebre had made a number of unforced errors during lengthy attacking sets, this was a smart decision as the home side continued to make errors while searching for a way to break down the organised Cardiff Blues defensive line, which if anything got harder to beat as the game went on through the addition of even more line speed.
With Zebre already low on confidence after 60 minutes of being unable to break down the Cardiff Blues defence, seeing the lineout go down the drain and making a high number of enforced errors, John Mulvihill made some excellent tactical substitutions at just the right time.
Particularly the introductions of Olly Robinson, Jason Tovey and Garyn Smith added further defensive leadership and fresh pairs of legs that led the defence in upping the line speed and putting the hosts under pressure which they just could not cope with.
Their attacking structures fell apart, they started standing much deeper from first receiver and set it up for Cardiff Blues to regularly make tackles well behind the gain line and force them into kicking the ball away, adding up the little mental wins as much as anything. The confidence the away side visibly grew as the half went on, to the point where we started spot blitzing to great effect.
Spot blitzing can be risky even with 15, as the gap left in the defensive line can be exploited to devastating effect if the attacking line can work around the solo defender, or the defender positions themselves poorly or misses a tackle.
At this point of the game though, with the Cardiff Blues defence largely dominating the game despite being down to 14 and the Zebre attack visibly shaky, and having seen their star man Carlo Canna been given the hook, it was exactly the right thing to do.
Jason Tovey gets up and out of the line, and crucially into the eye line of the first receiver. It cuts out the option of the two players out the back, and with the short option also covered by Garyn Smith, he has no choice but to tuck and run into the traffic of the forwards at guard and bodyguard on the edge of the previous breakdown who have tracked across perfectly.
The spot blitz was then equally effective with Jason Tovey coming up to make a hit on the ball carrier, forcing possession to go to ground and allowing Lloyd Williams and Josh Adams to challenge for the ball having come up quickly on the shoulder of the spot blitzer, while in the second clip Adams makes a superb read stepping in off his wing to end any danger of an overlap out wide.
As much as the systems make the defence, and Cardiff Blues defence coach Richard Hodges deserves plenty of praise for how we performed on Friday, it is the players who make it happen on the pitch, especially the leaders, and one man mentioned above was right at the centre of that with Lloyd Williams having a truly superb game without the ball.
Although not the captain on the day, Williams stepped up superbly and in an 80-minute performance led the side both with his game management and kicking ability, as well as his defensive decision making and leadership.
Gone are the days when the scrum-half would simply track behind the defensive line waiting to cover any chip kicks and jump on turnover ball, the modern nine is an integral part of defensive systems, being trusted to join the line and often spot blitz as and when they see fit, a tactic largely pioneered by Shaun Edwards.
Williams fulfilled that role to perfection on Friday, regularly narrowing the Zebre attack as he spot blitzed in the outside centre channel, as well as having the legs to get around and cover half-breaks, effecting a turnover simply by reading the game and getting his hands on a loose ball. These individual efforts really underpinned Cardiff Blues in the second half, even when the hosts finally threatened the try line.
After a huge effort with 14 men, 80 minutes on the clock and the game won, Cardiff Blues were still determined not to let Zebre over the line as first Matthew Morgan and Hallam Amos prevent a try and then Olly Robinson gets himself under the ball as the hosts finally get over the line.
It just summed up what a seriously good defensive shift this was, both in terms of tactical organisation, discipline and sheer hard work.
One win against Zebre is nothing to sit on our laurels about though. There will be sterner tests ahead, and crucially, the issue of consistency for Cardiff Blues which has seen us capable of producing the performance we saw on Friday one week, followed by something totally abject the following week.
Hopefully this is the minimum base to build on, rather than a one-off event.