A new game-weekly series on the blog where, rather than a match report reliving a game we all saw, it’s a space to spill some thoughts on each Cardiff game; the good, the bad and the ugly.
It’s a handy starting spot for a series like this as Saturday afternoon’s win over Munster produced a good number of talking points at the Arms Park, with plenty of positives but arguably more work-ons appearing from a victory that was deserved but hard fought for when the team sheets suggested a walk over for the home side.
As much as many in the Cardiff camp would rather forget all about the final three months of last season, there’s no doubt that, intentionally or not, it hung over everyone in the ground on Saturday. It was nervy throughout the 80 minutes, and into the final few minutes especially when the kick-off reception was blown following Aled Summerhill’s try.
With that in mind the win was the most important thing for Dai Young’s men, however it came, and it came on the back of something that was lacking last year; sheer hard work.
The nerves leading to unforced errors, the injury disruption, and the new partnerships across the squad meant that the rugby we played did not always match the quality of the names on the team sheet, but the scramble defence, the kick chasing, the speed to breakdowns on both sides of the ball and the desire to push for the full 80 meant Cardiff never let the game out of their control.
That’s not to say there was not good stuff on a technical or tactical level though, far from it. The breakdown work in particular was a masterclass; the accuracy of the ruck cleans in attack restricted Munster to two successful jackals, and the timing and precision of the jackal in defence won us six turnovers in the tackle area.
The lineout took a leap forward from where it was last season, the scrum was solid throughout, some of the offloading was of the highest quality and there was some smart tactical kicking that kept the opposition pinned in their own half when playing uphill and into the wind during the second half.
Individually, Kris Dacey rolled back the years after a year of injury frustrations, Rhys Carre answered a lot of fitness critics with a huge 80-minute performance, Thomas Young and James Botham showed promising signs around developing an understanding as a flanker duo, Max Llewellyn came of age at inside centre, Rey Lee-Lo oozed class alongside him, and Taulupe Faletau was every inch the world class number eight that we’ve been craving at the Arms Park since Nick Williams retired.
Looking at the work-ons and defensively there were moments particularly late in the first half and early in the second half where the organisation of the defensive line was non-existent. Things all got very congested around the breakdown, Blue and Black shirts were very narrow and although the scramble defence saved us, a better side than an evolving and young Munster would have put us to the sword.
The driving maul was slow to set coming down off the lineout, with the pillars struggling to offer much protection and allowing the away side to work around the outside and hold up the drive as well as disrupt the transfer of the ball back to the scrum-half and impact first phase strike plays.
In attack then there was a lack of ability to up the tempo during phase play with the carrying off 10 often too static to create any impetus, while the obvious area of improvement needs to come around red zone attack where once in each half opportunities to score a try went begging as the pick-and-go game was too slow and formulaic to trouble a Munster side that lives for that niggly, physical confrontation up front.
The big takeaway from the game from where I was stood though, was the positive way we used the bench to ensure an 80-minute performance.
Previously I have a feeling we’d have front loaded the starting XV with the likes of Dmitri Arhip, Lopeti Timani and Willis Halaholo, leaving Dillon Lewis, James Botham and Max Llewellyn on the bench. Now they are all capable players, but bringing them on in the final quarter would mean being without a vast amount of experience, and a vast amount of bulk.
By balancing the selection of the 23 in an acknowledgement that modern professional rugby is all about how you use that 23, not just picking your best XV and then eight others, we put ourselves in a position where Lewis, Botham and particularly Llewellyn could shine alongside experienced colleagues in the first hour, and then Arhip, Timani and Halaholo come on to manage, and ultimately win, the game.
If that is a lesson we have learned, and we start to concentrate on those easily fixable work-ons, then this will truly be a great base on which to start the season. However, if we fail to back this win up against Glasgow and Lions over the next two weeks then it will just go down as another false dawn. It’s the hope that kills you, but something does feel slightly different this time.