Learning the hard way

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Cardiff Blues suffered heartbreak at the death on Friday night as a last-gasp score saw 14-man London Irish advance to the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals.

As Dai Young told the players in the changing room at the Brentford Community Stadium after the game, we had won it two or three times over before allowing the Exiles to first claw back a 20-32 deficit, and then score with the clock red after we had taken a 34-35 lead with 78 minutes gone.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the performance and the result is the knowledge that it is very probable that we will see a repeat of it from Cardiff Blues at some point though, unless we start to show a progression in our ability to manage a game and begin to make it to big knockout rugby occasions regularly.

There were more than enough leaders on that field in the last 15 minutes on Friday; Dmitri Arhip, Cory Hill, Josh Navidi, Olly Robinson, Josh Turnbull, Lloyd Williams and Willis Halaholo have all been around the block and possess capable rugby brains that should know how to manage that situation and ensure their team-mates know what they are doing.

Then when you look at the key positions of half-back the likes of Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans, now 26 and 24 respectively, should be able to have a much better crack at managing those key moments at this stage of their careers, especially if they harbour ambitions of being regular international starters.

The leadership group and the half-backs have to learn from these moments, as time is running out on them being new to leadership roles or still young players, and the best way to do that is start to get themselves into these positions on a regular basis.

This starts with our performances week-in, week-out. Far too often we are failing to fire on all or any cylinders early in a game, and having to work hard in the second half to chase down deficits rather than coming out fast and then controlling proceedings once we take a strong lead. If we do that we give ourselves a much better chance to win games regularly.

From there we can get involved in more of these high pressure, knockout rugby situations, whether they come in the latter stages of European competition or in the play-offs of the Guinness Pro14/16, which we simply don’t have enough experience in currently.

Now it would be disingenuous of me not to mention the fact that the season structure of the league and the finances of Welsh rugby don’t help Cardiff Blues in this respect. So many games played during international windows and against the better funded Irish and Scottish sides means we face an uphill battle even to make it into those games

With the Ospreys and Dragons also failing to see out games during which they held comfortable leads on the Saturday, after Wales suffered a similar fate to France just last month, maybe the Welsh Rugby Union will identify an endemic problem in Welsh rugby and acknowledge that by properly paying the clubs for the services provided.

While we wait for that epiphany though we must deal with what we can control, and I do think opportunities to improve exist in that altering of the league structure as a Pro16 prevents games being played during international windows. It means we should have our whole squad available, pending injuries, for up to 16 of 18 games next season.

The additional encouraging aspect is that Dai Young watched us struggle to turn 60 minutes of competitive performance in games against Connacht and Munster into wins, and went out to rectify that two weeks later against Benetton and Edinburgh. Hopefully that will translate into managing game winning situations.

Ultimately it will come down to the players and their willingness to learn and improve though. That needs to happen sooner rather than later, before difficult decisions must be made. It’s close to now or never for Cardiff when it comes to escaping mid-table mediocrity. Let’s make it now.

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