Dai Young will have been very pleased with how Cardiff played during the first 40 minutes of Saturday’s pre-season friendly away at Gallagher Premiership champions Harlequins.
Right from the word go there was an ambition and a tempo in the Blue and Blacks attack that we haven’t seen for some time. Heads up rugby saw us taking advantage of lapses in the Quins defence, while a willingness to offload gave us go-forward ball and helped us get to the edges of the opposition where our outside backs had plenty of joy.
Particularly pleasing was that the tempo was maintained throughout the half and did not impact on the defence at all, as we had seen during the Rainbow Cup where we seemed to run out of steam around the half-hour mark and while fatigued would end up conceding tired penalties when without the ball.
Into the second half though there was a change. Some of it came in the context of Quins being able to introduce players like Jack Kenningham, Scott Steele, Tommaso Allan, Andre Esterhuizen, Tyrone Green and Louis Lynagh, versus a Cardiff bench containing Sean Moore, Rhys Anstey and Ethan Lloyd all making their first senior professional appearances.
However, there was a sense that the changes disrupted the flow to the Blue and Blacks game somewhat, and that forced a reversion to some of the attacking traits that we have displayed over the majority of the last three years; being slow to attacking breakdowns, making handling errors and kicking possession away too easily and aimlessly.
Now that is something that is highly unlikely to be repeated in the regular season, as it would take some catastrophic circumstances for us to be making multiple changes at half-time, but there will no doubt be occasions where our attacking game does not function for other reasons.
An opposition defence that brings such line speed or is such a defensive breakdown threat that it suffocates us, inclement weather that makes playing expansively or offloading too difficult, or simply an off day where balls don’t go to hand and too many errors are made could all see the kind of attack that Cardiff played in the first half on Saturday simply fall apart.
It’s for this reason that a strong plan B is required and will be an important aspect of our game if we are aiming to be competitive in the United Rugby Championship this season, both challenging for the play-offs and securing qualification for the 2022/23 Heineken Champions Cup.
What form that plan B takes is, of course, up to Young and his coaching staff, but for my money it a well drilled tactical kicking game is the best option for the squad we have available, rather than a tightened up hard carrying game.
As we’ve seen multiple times over the last few years, we just don’t have that physicality to go toe-to-toe with most opposition sides that can suffocate our attacking game or in tough weather conditions, and as a result would likely end up reverting to kicking anyway.
By taking hold of the kicking game by the scruff of the neck in those circumstances, varying when we kick and how we kick in order to win field position and force errors from the opposition, it gives us the opportunity to achieve the same aims as if we were playing our primary attacking game, getting us into try scoring positions or winning penalties to capitalise from.
Beyond that, if it is the case that the opposing defence was dominating proceedings early on, or Cardiff were struggling to complete skills, then by turning to a successful kicking game it can cause the defence to lower their line speed or breakdown work, or give confidence to the Blue and Blacks to build back up from, allowing a return to that primary attacking game.
With Rhys Priestland showing off his range of kicking on Saturday, Jarrod Evans improving in that area all the time and now with Priestland to learn from, plus Ben Thomas, Matthew Morgan and Hallam Amos all more than capable footballers, the kicking options are there to be a team that dominates aerially as well as on the ground.
That may prove vital during the heart of the Northern Hemisphere season.