View from the South Terrace: Bulls

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They say that a week is a long time in showbiz, and while the South Terrace at the Arms Park on a cold December evening is about as far from Hollywood as it gets, a week is also a long time in Cardiff Rugby.

From a 0-35 performance of the season win it was back down to 1800m above sea level earth with a bump at the Loftus Versfeld on Saturday evening as the Blue and Blacks fell to a 45-9 defeat at the hands of the Bulls. A chastening loss, certainly, but not as calamitous as it looks on paper.

The truth of the matter is that Dai Young probably expected something like this. Looking at the evidence at hand it seems likely that a number of players who picked up knocks against Sharks were not risked this weekend as every name listed as an injury doubt by the Director of Rugby in his weekly press conference was left out of the matchday 23 in Pretoria.

Then once the game started getting away from Cardiff early in the second half, Dai had no hesitation in withdrawing a number of senior players for younger talent among the replacements as Will Davies-King, Teddy Williams and Ellis Bevan were all introduced in place of Dmitri Arhip, Seb Davies and Lloyd Williams, joining Mason Grady and Cameron Winnett on the field.

Ultimately he was right to think that way. The Blue and Blacks put a lot into that big win over the Sharks, Loftus Versfeld is at altitude on a very humid evening, and five points was already an excellent return from the mini-tour of South Africa. Also, over the next six weeks there are huge games to come with the festive derbies sandwiched between the European Challenge Cup pool stages.

As covered earlier in the season, it is simply not possible to compete at that top level week-in, week-out. You have to pick and choose your battles, and this wasn’t one where there was a realistic chance of success on the scoreboard. However, unlike away at Glasgow, it was a success for the Cardiff dressing room.

That night at Scotstoun the spectacular disintegration of the defence went hand-in-hand with a perceived lack of effort from some on the field, and the subsequent loss of momentum from the round one win over Munster saw Young’s side slide to a costly defeat at home against the Lions the following week. In Pretoria it was a very different story.

The Blue and Blacks battled for 80 minutes and were more than competitive at half-time against a Bulls outfit that are a very, very impressive side. They were immensely physical up front, well-drilled in transition and devastatingly clinical in the backs, with Kurt-Lee Arendse likely to hog the headlines but Canan Moodie looking every inch the future superstar.

There was a lot of good in Cardiff’s play too though. Defensively we fronted up and once again we were dangerous at the breakdown, with the back row of Josh Turnbull, Thomas Young and James Botham forming a trio that was a constant thorn in the side of the opposition. As part of the pack they were also effective at the maul, with a penalty try almost on the table but for some questionable refereeing.

Unfortunately we just fell short in a couple of areas as discipline slid in the second half against a dominant home team and a referee enjoying that ride, the kicking game was a few percent down on the quality shown last week, and the attack became a touch too loose and expansive for the conditions as we attempted to chase the game, mixed in with a touch of inexperience.

All-in-all though it has been a successful two weeks in South Africa. A great result followed by a spirited performance, a place in the United Rugby Championship’s play-off spots still secure, young players exposed to high level game time, and two weeks spent as a squad getting tighter knit both on and off the field. Plus, no covid variants forcing anyone into lockdown!

That success will only fully be realised if Cardiff go on to secure wins against Brive and Newcastle over the next two weeks, but with internationals set to return, games played on the familiar plastic surfaces and spots to be won in derby matchday squads, the chances are as good as they can be.

Now it’s in our hands to turn that into something tangible.

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