When it comes to looking at the first five games of the Cardiff season it’s a blog that will just about have a positive tone to it, going into a four-week break for the United Rugby Championship.
Going into round one it was clear that a strong first fixture block was going to be key for the Blue and Blacks, with that much being confirmed by Dai Young. Four out of five games at the Arms Park, the one away game at the Ospreys meaning we didn’t even have to leave Wales, there was a real opportunity to get a good number of points under our belts.
So when Connacht were promptly dispatched with a try bonus point to go with it, despite the fact that Cardiff had seen Rhys Priestland and Jarrod Evans depart inside the first 20 minutes, there was some real optimism that we could match our expectations and have close to 20 points in the back pocket heading into the international break.
Unfortunately things are never smooth with this club and while the loss to Ospreys was a disappointing one, it was the defeat at home to Bulls that was a real killer. That second half alone is what prevents the fixture block being a successful one as we blew a 16-3 half-time lead to lose 19-29 in a 40-minute blitz where we were completely physically dominated.
Credit where it’s due though, Cardiff did bounce back to save the season opening with two hard fought wins over Sharks and Dragons, respectively, and in the process showed how far we’ve come in 12 months.
Rewind to the first run of fixtures in the 2020/21 season and while it was possible to praise the Blue and Blacks for some battling and committed backs-to-the-wall defence on our own try line, a lack of ability to hold on to the ball and manage games where we were on the back foot meant we were always going to lose as we continued to invite pressure on to ourselves.
In the last two games though we have had spells where we were defending for our lives; the 15 minutes after half-time against the Sharks and the 30 minutes post-red card against Dragons, but we were able to weather those moments and then go down the other end with a strong tactical kicking game and the confidence to hold on to the ball, leading to points scoring opportunities.
The second half against Dragons, for example, saw us enjoy just 44% possession but manage to gain a 53% territory advantage as the kicking game allowed us to set our defensive line much higher up the field, and our attacking game meant we could retain the ball, put pressure on our easterly rivals until they conceded a penalty and then go to the corner where a maul secured the penalty try.
There is no doubt the performances will need to get better though, as the blog takes a slightly negative turn, with the knowledge that four of the five opponents so far will finish that first block of games below us in the table.
With Ospreys the only side above us in the URC league, and us needing to face them again courtesy of them being alongside us in the Welsh conference, it means that Cardiff still need to play all six teams ahead of us in the table before the end of the season including trips to Edinburgh, Ulster and Munster.
Before that we have to travel to South Africa at the end of next month likely without the majority, if not all, of the 10 players named in the Wales squad for the autumn internationals, plus the injured Josh Navidi and almost certainly Rey Lee-Lo after he was sent off on Saturday.
However, to finish on a positive note, there is definitely more to come from this squad.
We’ve shown improved game management, we have got stronger in defence generally and over the ball, and have demonstrated at improved appetite to keep hold of the ball and play in the right areas, but we have rarely properly opened up the attacking game as we did at times in the Rainbow Cup and during pre-season.
For whatever reason that is there are now a few weeks to fix that and hit the ground running on what will hopefully be dry and hard pitches down in South Africa where we can show off our fast-paced and skilful attacking game before taking on the might of Toulouse and Harlequins heading into the Christmas derbies.
The season is about to get interesting, we’ve got a base to build from, now let’s push forward.