Analysis: Trapped in the fringes

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When it comes to reviewing Cardiff’s performances over the first fixture block of the United Rugby Championship there are plenty of positive aspects to deal with.

Our red zone defence has, on the whole, been very solid, our lineout has largely functioned well, when our attack has had the opportunity to play on the front foot it has flowed well, and in the meantime the game management has been much improved, grinding out wins over Sharks and while down to 14-men against the Dragons.

However, there has been downsides and none more so than the discipline which has been a continuous thorn in the side of the Blue and Blacks as we have attempted to either get ourselves back into games or cling on to leads. No team in the league has conceded more than our 68 penalties across the first five rounds, an average of 13.6 per game.

Looking into this and of course some elements of our ill-discipline are either too obvious or not able to be analysed; the scrum against Ospreys, individual lapses of concentration, or a reputation that goes before us with the refereeing teams that take charge of our games. One area we can improve on though is our defence around the fringes of the breakdown, which may reduce the number of penalties we concede.

A relatively consistent problem has seen Cardiff defenders pinned on the wrong side of the breakdown and penalised either for killing the ball or not rolling away in time to avoid impeding opposition players arriving in the tackle area.

It links back, in my view, to some issues with our fringe defence and how organised and physical it is. What has been lacking from our defensive game over this first five rounds has been any really dominant tackles from our forwards on the forward ball carriers of the opposition. This not only allows opponents to build up momentum in attack, but also leads to tacklers landing on the wrong side of the breakdown.

Now in the clip above it is a slightly unfair one to use as it comes on phase two after a set piece where the Ospreys have switched back to the blindside, and while it underlines that we are getting pinned on the wrong side of breakdowns and are not particularly quick to form up, I’d like to mainly focus on two aspects of our defence linked to our issues at the fringes, starting with how many players are getting stuck around the tackle area itself.

With four players either slow to get off the floor or slow to fold around the corner after the previous breakdown, the knock on effect is that the spacing between defenders around the fringes is too wide, giving the Dragons ball carriers ample opportunity to hit weak shoulders and get over the gain line.

There’s very little organisation to the Cardiff line, there is no intensity to the line speed and there’s little chance of a dominant tackle. Brad Thyer ends up making a passive tackle and struggles to roll away as the Dragons support arrives, while even James Ratti ends up on the wrong side of the breakdown and has to be moved by arriving opposition players.

The worrying thing is not only that we’re getting players stuck around the breakdown, with at least three being out of the game as the Ospreys move the ball away from the tackle area here with only two Cardiff defenders set and coming off the line, but how many players have their eyes glued to the breakdown rather than being aware of what is coming in the next phase.

We are of course one of the better defensive breakdown sides around, you only have to look at our turnover stats to understand that, but that cannot be our only defensive tactics. It is becoming more difficult to effect a jackal as referees clamp down on players not supporting their own body weight, while teams are taking us on with tactics to negate our jackal threat.

There is still a persistence with keeping players close to the jackal area though, and that is not only leading to penalties being given away from the next phase’s passive defence, but leaving us open in the wider channels too.

The Bulls are able to get into the wider channels and create the mis-match between Bismarck du Plessis and Rhys Priestland relatively easily here, and that comes from a knock-on effect of being stuck around the breakdown as mentioned earlier after the clip from the Dragons game, the defensive line is subsequently all over the place.

Whether by consequence or design, Cardiff are running a dogleg out-to-in defensive blitz whereby the outside defenders are coming up quickly and forcing the attack to stay narrow. In the clip above the lack of numbers in the line means the Bulls can still go wide, but even when the opposition do stay narrow it still leads to penalties.

Essentially the fringe defence is not coming up quickly enough when the ball carrier comes back inside and we are still making passive tackles and ending up on the wrong side of the breakdown leading to the threat of penalties or the referee actually pinging us.

It’s a double whammy in terms of players landing on the wrong side of the breakdown as the inside defender does on both occasions, with Dmitri Arhip and Kirby Myhill having not come up with the outside blitz and subsequently making passive tackles leaving them pinned.

However the outside defender, Rory Thornton and then Arhip again, also leave themselves vulnerable to getting trapped as they have to turn back inside on their weak shoulders and assist the tackle on the ball carrier who has been kept narrow. As a result their momentum leads to them swinging around on to the wrong side of the tackle.

These are issues which have dogged Cardiff throughout the first five weeks of the URC, and stem from that bad habit of having too many ruck inspectors rather than getting the defence set for the next phase, but frustratingly there have been glimpses of the defence being organised and effective in flashes.

There’s a theme of sorts that develops through this clips of good and physical fringe defence, and that’s two-man tackles are by far and away the most effective when it comes to gaining dominance at the gain line and subsequently cutting down the risk of giving away penalties.

That can only happen though if the defensive line is properly staffed, organised and quick to get off the line, which means Cardiff may well have to look away from the defensive breakdown as our main attacking weapon and starting beefing up that fringe defence in order to prevent the tidal wave of penalties going against us as we have seen at points this season.

The jackal will still be an option as we have fantastic operators in that area, but going to South Africa at their altitude or hard, dry grounds, or facing the likes of Harlequins with their breakneck attacking tempo, getting defenders on their feet and ready for the next phase quickly will be the order of the day as much as slowing down the opposition on the floor.

As ever, it’s a balance with these things. Hopefully a few weeks away from match action has given the Blue and Blacks a chance to find that balance.

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