In previous years I have produced a list of aspects to look out for during Cardiff’s pre-season campaign, usually around the game time of young players and the use of certain combinations.
I could do this again ahead of the next two weeks as the Blue and Blacks prepare to travel to Gloucester on Friday night before welcoming Zebre to the Arms Park the following Friday night, with tickets at £10 for Kingsholm and included in the season ticket for the home game.
There’s a raft of young players that should be seeing game time as they prepare to step up into the first team or become first team regulars, there’s new looks to the back five forwards and the outside backs that need to be trialled, and there’s big improvements needed defensively and at the set piece.
However, in previous pre-season campaigns a lot of the list has been ticked but the success of that has not translated into the United Rugby Championship. Take last season as an example, where positive friendly outings against Harlequins and Bath, during which we played high tempo attacking rugby, were followed by being physically out-muscled in forwards battles by rounds two and three.
As a result this season the focus is on one thing only; the fitness of the Cardiff squad.
During the second half of 2021/22 it was obvious that the conditioning of the Blue and Blacks players was not where it needed to be. Capitulations in the last 10 minutes of the first half and the final quarter of games became common, as performances that even contained some fight were ruined by a complete loss of legs at key points.
There were some comments that saw Head of Physical Performance Trystan Bevan come under fire for that lack of fitness, but in truth it would have taken a miracle worker to get the Cardiff squad in peak physical condition at that point of the season after the way the schedule was destroyed by being stuck in South Africa, covid-19 and inclement weather.
It was 11 weeks between the Dragons game at the end of October and the Edinburgh game at the start of January, and then another five weeks between the win over Leinster and the trip to Ulster for the first team players, who had to try and cram two pre-seasons into the middle of the campaign after so long in isolation, and just generally off the pitch.
Once that mammoth run of 12 games in 12 weeks began it was nigh on impossible to do the necessary fitness work alongside the tactical work needed on the training field, meaning that both areas were lacking when the players took the field each week.
Now though, and all who are reading this should be looking to touch wood at this point, the 2022/23 season should hopefully be a lot more settled for Cardiff, and off the back of two-and-a-half months of pre-season the squad should be in a much better spot fitness-wise.
There’s a lot of “should” in that paragraph, but the fitness aspect will be one to watch over the next two games as it will underpin anything that is good about the Blue and Blacks on the pitch this season.
The signings of Lopeti Timani, Thomas Young and Taulupe Faletau, along with the hoped development of Theo Bevacqua, Efan Daniel, Will Davies-King and Teddy Williams will boost the physicality of the pack, but we will continue to have considerably less bite up front that the majority of the opposition we will face in the URC.
As a result Cardiff have to be a side that plays at a higher tempo than their opposition, bringing a relentless nature to the defensive line, creating overloads and overlaps in attack, and forming up quickly on transition to make the most of the broken field.
Unless we can do that, and execute skills to a high level while doing so, then our best chance of qualifying for the play-offs heads off into the sunset. If we’re going to be one of the best eight teams in the league this season, then we’ll need to be at the top of the fitness charts.