Cardiff’s opening round bonus point win over Connacht in the United Rugby Championship was an impressive one, but was made all the more impressive considering both 10s in the squad departed inside the first quarter.
While Wayne Pivac watching on will have been worried about his Wales team’s clash with New Zealand in a month’s time, the immediate focus of Dai Young and 5,000 people in the Arms Park stands was who on earth steps up in the absence of Rhys Priestland, after he failed a head injury statement, and Jarrod Evans, who suffered a chest injury.
In the end, although it was Lloyd Williams who slotted in at 10 and did a good job in the circumstances, the answer to the question was Tomos Williams and Willis Halaholo, as the replacement scrum-half and the inside centre ran the show for Cardiff.
As would be expected after a team has just watched two fly-halves carted off after 20 minutes, there was a period of adjusting as the Blue and Blacks tightened up our game and played short off scrum-half, but it saw us get bogged down too often and slow ball prevented us from making any impact at the gain line.
It’s noticeable as well that, in the second clip, Lloyd Williams is stood behind the breakdown looking a little lost as Cardiff really struggled to find our feet on the back of Jarrod Evans going off. Slow ruck speed and standing starts for the forwards make it easy for Connacht to win the turnover in the end.
Fast forward a few minutes though and the Blue and Blacks were already taking strides towards rediscovering our attacking identity even without a recognised fly-half, playing fast and wide in order to get over the gain line and put danger men into space.
A lot of that started with Tomos Williams as he took a real grip of the game from scrum-half, beginning to up the tempo of Cardiff’s play, as well as creating space for those around him to operate in.
The working over that Williams gave the Connacht fringe defence prevented them being able to bring any line speed and kept eyes firmly fixed on the breakdown, while bringing forwards into play off his shoulder and giving those in the wider channels more time to fashion attacking opportunities.
Crucially, it also gave Lloyd Williams time to grow into the fly-half role as he could sit a little deeper at first receiver and scan the defence, as well as the options outside him, giving the opposition defence another aspect of the Cardiff attack to think about as the stand-in 10 got his hands on the ball more.
That was all in evidence here as Tomos Williams ups the tempo of the Cardiff attack with a tap penalty from inside our own half. This subsequently gets the forwards running on to the ball and over the gain line, before Lloyd Williams has that extra space and time to operate in. Even before half-time his confidence at fly-half was starting to grow as he delays the pass perfectly for Ellis Jenkins to get his hands through a tackle.
Perhaps even more prominent was Willis Halaholo’s role in reinvigorating the Blue and Blacks attack though, as the inside centre put himself front and centre for a spot in the Wales midfield this Autumn in front of the watching Wayne Pivac, Stephen Jones and Gethin Jenkins.
18 time he got his hands on the ball on Friday night, but whereas usually his carrying stats would be higher than his passing, he stepped up as a playmaker and distributor against Connacht passing the ball on 11 occasions as he took the pressure off Lloyd Williams in terms of standing at first receiver and moving possession into the wider channels.
Whether it was in the second playmaker role as a pull-back option, or stepping in at first receiver, Halaholo was instrumental in creating go-forward in midfield and playing into space in the wider channels, showing off his distribution skills that have come on a lot over the last year or so as he looks to step up into the international arena permanently.
So far he’s been largely utilised at outside centre, but with Johnny Williams injured, Nick Tompkins unavailable for the New Zealand game and Jonathan Davies struggling at times last season, there’s an opportunity to put his hand up for his favoured 12 jersey.
Particularly noticeable in the last two clips is how Lloyd Williams is at first receiver the very next phase, working in that extra space and getting the ball moving wide again where Cardiff had success on the edge of the Connacht defence.
Add in his carrying ability, where he linked up well with Tomos Williams on Friday night, and he displayed the all-round attacking game to line up for Wales this Autumn.
Having said the above about Tomos and Halaholo stepping up to assist Lloyd Williams, the 31-year-old showed off all of his experience to slot in at the unusual position of fly-half exactly six years to the weekend that he appeared on the wing against England in the World Cup, putting in the kick for Gareth Davies to score under the posts.
His passing range was on full show and as he grew in confidence he was also able to take the ball to the defensive line, delaying passes and putting players through to make line breaks which should have led to at least one try.
In the end it was a very successful outing for Cardiff, and a testament to the new attacking system put in place by Dai Young and Matt Sherratt that it was able to withstand losing two fly-halves in 20 minutes, as well as the players within that system for embracing it and standing up when they could have crumbled.
Beyond the 80 minutes of Friday night there is something exciting brewing at the Arms Park as, if we can put five tries on Connacht playing without a recognised fly-half for an hour, imagine what we can do with a playmaker in place for a full game…