Over the last two weeks Cardiff Blues have struggled to earn any territory or possession in defeats against Munster and Ulster that have ended a winning start to the season.
As looked at earlier in the week in the Stat Attack, John Mulvihill’s side had 43% possession and 30% territory at Thomond Park, while at Rodney Parade we had just 36% possession and 31% territory. Against efficient and powerful Irish packs that is a recipe for disaster and so it told as four of the six tries we’ve conceded across the games have come from lengthy visits to our 22.
The reasons for that are not cut-and-dry. There’s an element of our kicking game that hasn’t been great, while our inability to hold on to the ball through longer attacking sets and dominate games in that way hasn’t helped, and finally there has to be an acknowledgement that being up on possession and territory against the Irish sides during an international window is a tough ask.
However I want to concentrate today on Cardiff Blues’ exits from our 22 over the last two games and how that has invited pressure on ourselves, starting with what the aim is with our clearing kicks and how what we’re doing at the moment isn’t working.
A number of times we offered on a plate to Munster and Ulster the opportunity to immediately return to our 22 having attempted to clear our lines, kicking in such a way that allows the opposition to claim possession and either kick return to beyond our 10 metre line or even start on the edge of our 22 straight away.
Keeping the kick in-field and opting for height only works with a committed chase and a kick that is easily contestable, but the first kick is too long for any Cardiff Blues chaser to get after, while our chase on the second kick is not good enough and Ulster take possession relatively easily on the edge of our 22.
The question will be whether this is the tactic, or if Lewis Jones’ box kicking isn’t up to scratch. It’s hard for me to answer one way or the other, but what makes me think it’s the first is the way we set up when looking to kick clear, not affording Jones much protection at the breakdown he’s box kicking from.
While a lot of people focus on the trend of breakdowns becoming much longer in the modern game, with the ‘player train’ giving the scrum-half up to five metres of space at the back of a ruck to kick from, there has also been a widening of the breakdown that affords even more protection.
A lot of teams will now place a forward at the side of the breakdown in the guard area, which makes it much harder for the defenders attempting to get around or over the ruck in order to charge down or pressurise the box kick.
In not putting a man there, Cardiff Blues allowed Munster and Ulster to go hard after Lewis Jones at the base of the breakdown, forcing him to put a higher trajectory kick in and subsequently losing distance. That then results in a kick that either offers the opportunity for the opposition to return the ball from a good starting position or have a lineout with good field position.
The final aspect to look at is something that Cardiff Blues have been caught lacking a few times so far this season; composure.
After doing all the hard work of fronting up in defence, turning over possession and securing it on the floor, we waste that by snatching at an opportunity to exit the 22 with Will Boyde whipping the ball away from the breakdown incredibly quickly and Jarrod Evans having to kick clear under pressure.
Before we know it Ulster are back in possession and returning the ball with interest into our 22, pinning us back and starting another long and energy sapping defensive set against a team that enjoys going through the phases and powering over the try line from close range.
There’s no reason why we can’t take a few extra seconds, put our foot on the ball briefly, take a phase to set up field position and then clear properly. It’s about trusting ourselves to execute that properly. We are capable of this, just as we are of keeping hold of possession when we’re on the attack and going through phases, we just need to develop the confidence that allows this to be possible.
Big strides have been taken in a number of areas so far this season, and where we are after four rounds in the 2020/21 campaign is a world away from the equivalent in 2019/20. Now we just need our confidence levels to catch up with elements of our performance, so that we can put in more rounded performances and win games that we are competitive in rather than watch league points slipping away.