Going into the festive derbies I think it’s fair to say that most Cardiff Blues supporters were not expecting much as the 2020/21 season prepared to fade to black.
Just one win in six Guinness Pro14 games going into the Boxing Day game with Dragons, as well as a victory over a second string Newcastle Falcons meant there was no form as such, and that realistically without at least two wins from the next three games the opportunity to qualify for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup would disappear.
The issues going into the block were that while the defence was strong we were spending way too much without the ball and pinned in our own half. As a result the penalty count was often high, the injuries were piling up as players put their bodies on the line repeatedly, and the talented back line was growing increasingly frustrated with an inability to get their hands on the ball.
Against the Dragons the weather and the quality of the Rodney Parade pitch ensured that some of those issues continued to linger, as we were able to grind out a win in ugly fashion, but trying to do the same thing against Ospreys a week later was suicide. 99 times out of 100 you will end up losing if you end up in a scrap with the Swansea-based team.
Then the block changed in a way that nobody could have predicted and took me from feeling like the season was over as a competition for Cardiff Blues, to suddenly believing that we can make something of this campaign.
John Mulvihill’s departure was a sad one, considering the feeling that he hadn’t had a proper crack of the whip as head coach, and that there was a possibility that he could finally put his stamp on the rugby club next season after doing excellent work bringing through a number of Academy graduates, but his departure also brought about a mindset change within the playing squad.
There were no worries over pressure on the head coach, the need to rectify issues that have festered over the last few weeks, months or even years when it comes to our consistency, or any requirement to look beyond the next game. All that mattered was expressing yourself, and crucially enjoying, an 80 minutes of rugby.
The performance against the Scarlets was the best we’ve seen in the Pro14, probably since the demolition of the same opposition in March 2019, as the forwards laid on an ideal platform, the half-backs were at their high-tempo and creative best, and the outside backs were clinical and precise in everything they did. It was Cardiff Rugby as we’ve known and always hope it to be.
On the back of that there was more unexpected events, as the French Government put paid to the final two rounds of the European pool stages, so the block came to an end with a surprise return fixture against the Scarlets brought forward from early March, which would be new interim Director of Rugby Dai Young’s first game back in charge of the club.
This one had flashes of that attacking flair, with one excellent try that should have been followed by another during the first half, but was built on the rock solid foundation of an almost impenetrable defence and a lineout that caused the home side all sorts of problems.
Another good win but one that was earned in a slightly different style as the game conditions required. That is the sign of a good team. Yes, we’d love to see flamboyant running rugby every minute of every game, but there will be weekends when you’re on the road against sides with bigger budgets or particular strengths where adapting is necessary.
Backing up one good win with another was particularly important, as was getting Dai Young’s second era off to a strong start, and now leaves Cardiff Blues in a very encouraging position going into four weeks without a game.
By the time we return against Connacht in Galway on Saturday 20th February we may well still be in 3rd position in Conference B and in a position whereby a win on the west coast of Ireland sees us jump into 2nd place, something which seemed almost impossible before the last fixture block.
From hoping for two wins in three games, to coming away with three wins in four games and a new man in charge it’s been a surprising few weeks but one that has reinvigorated the club, seeing positive energy flow through the players and the supporters still stuck watching at home.
Four huge games await, but our destiny is back firmly in our own hands. Come on Cardiff!