Cardiff’s pre-season campaign drew to a close on Friday night with a confident win over Bath after a back-and-forth display against Harlequins the week before.
Results clearly aren’t top of the agenda when it comes to pre-season friendlies, but there’s no doubt that securing a win at the Arms Park will be a confidence booster ahead of hosting Connacht at the famous old ground in round one of the United Rugby Championship.
Looking back on the two-week campaign as a whole and I’ll refer to a piece I wrote ahead of the games getting underway where I listed five things I’d be keeping an eye on against Bath and Harlequins.
The first was a focus on young players, which was hit beforehand by the continuing injuries to Luke Scully and Mason Grady, as well as the unavailability of Teddy Williams. However, Will Davies-King and Jamie Hill impressed from the start against Quins, while Max Llewellyn looked like a bona fide starting option at inside centre even when Willis Halaholo and Ben Thomas are available.
With Gwilym Bradley and Ellis Bevan showing flashes off the bench it bodes well for the depth in the squad for this season, and the future first team quality that the Blue and Blacks are producing.
In terms of the fitness of returning players it was particularly pleasing to see Shane Lewis-Hughes and Ellis Jenkins back working in tandem in the back row at Harlequins, while Aled Summerhill looked sharp and the possible re-occurrence of his wrist injury turned out to be an expected reaction to contact that should allow him to play against Connacht next week.
There was also plenty of positivity around the two long-term injuries from last season as Garyn Smith set up and scored a try at the Stoop having not played since New Year’s Day due to an ACL injury, while Will Boyde was all action on his return against Bath after being sidelined for 10 months with a serious facial injury.
We didn’t see quite as much of Sam Moore as was hoped, but backing up 20 minutes at Harlequins with 30 minutes at Carmarthen for the Rags is the start of hopefully building his body back up to dealing with contact week-in, week-out.
There also wasn’t much time to see the continuation of positional changes with Ben Thomas sidelined, but James Ratti showed up well at number eight again against Bath. Linked in with that though is the improvement in our pre-season conditioning and how that has lifted our attacking game to the next level, leaving the numbers on the back of the jerseys somewhat irrelevant for the loose forwards.
The tempo that we played with, particularly in the first 40 minutes at Harlequins, but throughout the 80 minutes against Bath too, displayed a noticeable improvement in the aerobic fitness of the squad in comparison to the Rainbow Cup at the end of last season where that style of attack left us looking fatigued after around 30 minutes.
As a result whether Ratti wears 8, 6, 5 or 4 does not matter outside of the scrum, what matters is getting the balance right between ball carriers, defensive threats and, in the nicest possible way, workhorses who can carry, tackle and, most importantly, secure possession at a breakdown.
Perhaps the only concern comes in the form of the fifth thing on the list though, and it’s a big aspect of the game that has been an achilles heel for Cardiff for too much of the last three years; the lineout.
In the second half against Harlequins and then throughout the game against Bath we either failed to secure ball at all on our own throw or were only able to present scrappy ball, hindering our attacking game and giving up good field position on too many occasions.
Between that, and four or five times over both games where we saw possession turned over while we went through phases in or close to the red zone, it’s a concern going into the season that Dai Young will need to get a firm grip on. If we are spurning 50% of points scoring opportunities then it will be a struggle to qualify for the play-offs.
Four out of five pre-season boxes being ticked is good going, and stands us in good stead to hit the ground running, but that lineout and red zone will need work in order to be consistent. It’s building nicely though!