They say that one game can make all the difference in sport, and for Cardiff Blues that has certainly been true over the last week.
A win over Glasgow Warriors on Sunday night would have seen John Mulvihill’s men finish the first fixture block of the 2020/21 Guinness Pro14 season with four wins and four losses. There would have been disappointments, yes, but on the whole it would have been a promising start to the campaign.
Instead a lacklustre performance has left us on three wins and five losses, with just 14 points sitting fourth in Conference B. As the only team to have completed all eight of our fixtured games, it means we can drop to fifth if Edinburgh win their game in hand, while Scarlets have a game in hand of their own to pull further clear of us, and Connacht can do the same with their three games in hand.
It was certainly a case of the hope that has killed us as Cardiff Blues supporters, after what was an excellent start with a hard fought 14-man win away at Zebre being followed by a bonus point victory at home against conference rivals Connacht. With almost a full squad to pick from, we were playing excellent rugby and dominating a team we have lagged behind over the last few years.
Unfortunately over the next few weeks the playing squad would be struck down by international call-ups, injury, suspension or general unavailability, with there being only 17 players by my count who have been available for all eight matches having made first team appearances before this season.
That has no doubt been a source of frustration for Mulvihill who admitted his side were “running on fumes” during the loss to Glasgow. The forwards in particular were heavy-legged around the field, losing the breakdown contest badly, while the whole team struggled on kick chase and the tackle completion rate dropped to the lowest of the campaign so far.
However, while large elements of that are out of our control, there are two viable questions to ask of the Cardiff Blues, some with the benefit of hindsight, that will hopefully allow us to improve in the future.
The first is around the use of the squad, and whether the effective burn out of some players and the injuries suffered by others could have been avoided. It centres around whether picking and choosing which games to target is acceptable, and if it’s alright to essentially throw games in the Pro14?
If, for example, we had sent a much-changed team to Munster in round three, resting some key senior players and preventing their injury, there may have been more of an opportunity to target the games at home to Ulster and certainly away at Edinburgh. There would then have been another opportunity to rest some players away to Leinster before targeting Glasgow.
This would then have hopefully avoided the pile up of injuries and prevented the fatigue in the squad, but the counter-argument is about attitude and culture. Accepting defeat is not the mindset of a successful team, whether that success is winning trophies or qualifying for play-offs. The best players want to be competing in every game, especially against the best.
Throwing the big games perhaps sends a wrong message, but while it may always be the case that the correct answer is known in hindsight, the argument is one for Mulvihill and his coaching staff to consider, certainly. There is another question that doesn’t necessarily require hindsight though, the issue of whether our defensive solidity is actually the reason for our poor attack?
In this week’s Stat Attack I looked at the numbers behind our time with the ball, as we averaged just 40% possession during seven of the eight games of the season so far, excluding the Connacht game, and overall enjoyed just 35% of the territory. On the other side though, we were statistically the best defence in the league according to the Pro14’s website.
When I pose the above question I don’t ask it from a point of view that the amount of defending that Cardiff Blues have done over the last two months has caused the attacking game to look tired, instead it’s whether the defensive system invites pressure from the opposition kicking game and allows us to be pinned in our own 22.
The blue wall of the defence is often constructed of 14 players, where most teams utilise 13 in the defensive line, leaving only Matthew Morgan to cover the back field. As a result, when an opposition side can’t break us down after a few phases of an attacking set, they find it simple to put boot to ball and hit space behind the defensive line.
This will be the basis of an analysis piece over the next few days, but if we cannot begin to turn the tide towards dominating games with our attack, rather than our defence, the rest of the season will be a fairly turgid affair.
A cautiously positive note to finish the piece on though, is the blooding of youngsters over the last eight games. I wrote a few weeks ago about the turning of the corner in this respect, giving talented Academy graduates or members a shot even without injury crisis, with the likes of Iestyn Harris, Teddy Williams, Gwilym Bradley, Jamie Hill and Mason Grady all making debuts, alongside others getting proper first team exposure for the first time.
Unfortunately the corner was turned too late to save ties against Ulster and Edinburgh, with an evolution of team selection away from older members of the wider squad who have reached their talent ceiling, towards these young players with plenty of potential.
This will not only have a positive impact on performances in the short-term, but hopefully improve the quality of the first team and, crucially, the squad as a whole over time, giving us the opportunity to concentrate recruitment on key non-Welsh qualified players and helping us achieve the goal of being competitive all season long.
Avoiding more international windows like the one just gone is the only way we will finally qualify for the Pro14 play-offs.