There are has been one major positive and one major negative to the Cardiff Blues season so far, as John Mulvihill’s men have struggled to string a run of wins together.
The positive has been the defence; with the Richard Hodges coached area currently top of the Guinness Pro14 defensive stats having made the most tackles, secured the best tackle success rate and won the most turnovers in the league.
On the other hand the reason we are topping all the defensive stats is largely down to just how much defending we have to do. Across the opening eight games of the campaign, Cardiff Blues only dominated possession and territory against Connacht and Benetton, with average territory in particular down below 40%.
I have previously looked at one of the reasons for that, focusing on our poor exits from our own 22 which fail to clear our lines successfully. The opposition are then able to return the ball with interest and start a new attack from inside our 10 metre line.
On top of that though, I wonder if our defensive dominance is actually leading to us allowing opposition sides to pin us in our own 22…
One of the major reasons the defence has been so dominant has been the creation of the blue wall. We conceded very few line breaks, especially in open play, due to the amount of players we have on their feet in the defensive line.
This then narrows down gaps between defenders, lessen the impact of any disconnect and allows us to get through quite the number of tackles that we do per game. Cardiff Blues have never looked so comfortable defending phase-after-phase.
The issue is that the blue wall keeps so many people on their feet because we generally see just one player in the back field; the full-back. As the image above shows, both wingers and the fly-half are pushed right up in the defensive line, preventing Ulster creating any overlaps and lessening their chances of getting to the edge of our defence.
Generally teams operate one of two ways when it comes to covering the back field; either the full-back and the fly-half drop back taking half the pitch each, or the back three rock from side-to-side, with the full-back covering the openside and the wingers dropping back when they are on the blindside.
By keeping the fly-half and both wingers high though, Cardiff Blues are asking the full-back to cover a lot of ground, and naturally open space appears in the back field.
No matter how quick our back three is, they are not going to beat a kicked rugby ball in a 40 metre race, and after the opposition has been knocked back by the blue wall over a number of phases we end up offering them an easy out with one of the half-backs spotting the space and putting the ball into our 22.
If they find touch, as they do above, we then come full circle to the aforementioned poor exiting. In truth, even if the exit was successfully carried out we’re unlikely to clear to touch beyond the halfway line, so in the long-term we’ve conceded 10-20 metres of territory and given the opposition first phase ball to attack with.
Eventually the pressure of continual defence in our own half tells and we concede, either through the opposition gaining more and more territory, or we simply run of out legs from defending for so long. Even if the full-back is able to cover a kick, by the time he gets across and on to the ball his clearance is a hurried on resulting in a big territory loss.
To finish on a positive note though, there was evidence that things are changing for the better against Newcastle 10 days ago as we filled the back field more often. Yes, that involved giving up a few more missed tackles and even a try in the first half that we otherwise would not have conceded, but in the end it worked out.
At times we ran with both Matthew Morgan and Jarrod Evans in the back field, while at other points one or both wingers were a lot deeper, and as a result we saw either the English side kicking out on the full, or Cardiff Blues being able to cover the back field comfortably and clear our lines successfully.
It’s no surprise that, on the back of that, Cardiff Blues were able to dominate possession and territory on the way to a good win, with one try coming from a kick return and another from a driving maul about a minute after Newcastle had handed us possession and field position with a kick out on the full.
With the wingers deeper, Hallam Amos is able to cover back and give Matthew Morgan more time and a better angle to kick clear, while Harri Millard being deeper cuts down the space the Newcastle fly-half has to aim for when trying to pin us in our own 22.
Ahead of the Welsh derbies it may well be worthwhile sticking with this set up when covering the back field, as the weather is likely to be tough and kicking is fairly prevalent among Welsh teams generally in the Guinness Pro14. If it means we concede one or two more line breaks then so be it if it gives us a better chance to dominate possession and territory.