There was plenty of change at the Arms Park over the course of the 2020/21 season; branding, competitions and coaches in particular.
On the pitch though the noticeable alteration was in Cardiff’s attacking game, as we went from a side that spent large parts of the game on the back foot defending in our own half and feeding on scraps with ball in hand, to dominating proceedings as a confident attacking unit that was able to win the possession and territory battles.
To try and evaluate where the attack has come from early in the Guinness Pro14 campaign and where it finished by the end of the Rainbow Cup, I’ve focused on two games; the 7-11 home loss to Ulster in early November, and the 28-29 win over Scarlets in May.
If we rewind to the 2018/19 campaign, the first under John Mulvihill, and with Jason Strange as attack coach we were a potent first phase attacking force. The quality of our back line has been spoken about for a number of seasons, and with the platform that a set piece gave us we were scintillating at times.
Two years on though and that cutting edge was less prevalent, as teams started getting wise to the pre-called plays. Ulster, in this example, do not fly all the way up from their defensive line, and particularly on the outside Garyn Smith’s dummy line as no effect at all, leaving Matthew Morgan and Owen Lane in a two-on-two.
In response Cardiff were looking to mix it up, taking options on short lines and looking to build into phases two, three and four, but too often we left ourselves unable to carry any momentum through an attacking set, getting bogged down either by taking backs off their feet or not getting forward carrying pods into place quickly enough.
When you end up in a situation where either your 10, 12 and 13 are all stuck at the breakdown area, or your forwards are outworked into the second phase leaving your available backs facing up to seven defenders, it’s going to be tough to manufacture anything in phases two or three, and so it turned out with both subsequent attacks fizzling out.
It was a particular problem for Cardiff early in the season as we were unable to carry or regenerate any pace into the attack beyond these pre-called plays. Clearly the 20/21 squad wasn’t blessed with massive ball carriers, especially after the retirement of Nick Williams, but we gave ourselves very little chance to get over the gain line anyway.
A largely static attack saw us bring little speed on to the ball and as a result we were often driven back behind the gain line, generating slow and scrappy ball that we struggled to keep hold of behind five or six phases, either being turned over or kicking possession away.
Taking this example from the first half against Ulster, three phases from a set of four see Cardiff players carrying into contact from effectively standing start. Up against an organised and physical opposition it sucks the speed out of the attack and sees us lose close to 10 metres from the starting point, with the ball eventually kicked away after the third clip.
Fast forward six months or so though, and there’s been noticeable changes to the Cardiff attack that play right into our strengths as a squad. We are making the most of the speed and athleticism of our pack, using it as an attacking weapon and having it complement the quality of our backs.
The basis of that though, is a confidence to keep hold of the ball, and that starts with pre-called plays. Gone are the days of it being an all-or-nothing chance of scoring a try on first phase strike plays, but replacing them are the days of calculated three-phase moves that keep the danger men in the backs on their feet and rely on the fitness and work rate of the forwards.
This Cardiff try is created in the second phase of the attack as Kris Dacey, Olly Robinson and Cory Hill work across from the set piece and are the sole members of the team involved at the breakdown, beating their Scarlets counterparts around the corner and forcing Ioan Nicholas and Kieran Hardy to be drawn into the area around the tackle.
With Johnny McNicholl guarding the back field from the left wing, when Jason Harries comes off our right wing there’s a six-on-four overlap created as Ben Thomas is the only Cardiff back to have been taken out of the game across the first two phases.
When you’ve got the strike power that we possess in the back line, utilising the forwards as a mobile unit to draw in defenders and create space is exactly the right tactic. The especially pleasing aspect of our attack towards the end of the season is how that took place beyond pre-called plays too, carrying the momentum gained through to the rest of the attack.
A similar three-phase play to the try scoring move sees Jason Harries released down the right wing, although this time he’s brought down in the back field as more forwards at the lineout see Willis Halaholo join Josh Adams at the first breakdown, but rather than that being the attack over the momentum is maintained.
The forwards have worked across to the opposite side of the field from the set piece and a pod of three are already in place for phase four with Kris Dacey and Olly Robinson moving on to the ball and ensuring phase five is played on the front foot as a result, allowing possession to eventually reach Josh Adams on the left wing who can carry up towards the five-metre line.
It’s that dynamic movement from the forwards that is the key to maintaining the momentum and taking us from a team that scores within two phases or ends up kicking the ball away, to a team that can sustain a double-digit amount of phases in an attacking set, piling pressure on to the opposition and either creating try scoring opportunities down the line or forcing the opposition into conceding a penalty.
A big difference within that attacking moment for the forwards is how, although they maintain the 1-3-3-1 formation across the field, it’s a lot less structured. Particularly in terms of the single forward on the edge of the formation, they are not obliged to hold their width, instead stepping inside to support the carrying pods and create space for the backs to play into.
Looking back at one of the earlier clips from the Ulster game, and Kris Dacey is the wide forward completely isolated from the attack as a two-man pod prepares to take the ball into contact. It’s effectively a 14-man attack and the knock-on effect is that we get driven back at the gain line and end up kicking the ball away.
Returning to our attack at the end of the season though, and the wide forward is Seb Davies who this time is allowed to identify a two-man pod and step in from the wing to bolster that pod. The knock-on effect this time is that the attack stays on the front-foot and maintains quick ball, while backs stay on their feet to capitalise on that platform in the space vacated by Davies.
That’s the entire philosophy of the attack in a nutshell; playing at speed, getting forwards moving on to the ball, generating quick ball and putting the ball in the hands of our danger men in space so that we can create opportunities to score tries beyond phase three.
It’s then topped off by the fact that two phases after Adams carries possession down towards the five-metre line, Cory Hill comes on to the ball on a superb angle and breaks through the Scarlets defence to score a try that I haven’t seen Cardiff score in a long time.
It’s not a particularly flashy score, and it certainly won’t win any awards at the end of a season, but a Cardiff forward breaking through an opposition defence to barrel over from 10 metres out after a sustained seven or eight phases of attack taking us up to the opposition 22 is something that we haven’t done for a long time.
When you add this attacking game plan on to the improved red zone attack I’ve previously looked at, it’s close to a complete Cardiff attack that can go and compete this season, although it does rely on Trystan Bevan and his High Performance team getting the players conditioned to play at that high tempo for an extended period of team.
Get that conditioning right, along with a plan B for when the game plan will inevitably go wrong during a game at some point of the season, will be key. The basic blueprint for the attack is very encouraging though, and one we’ve been waiting to see for a long time.