2015/16 Season Review: A Winning End

As of February 14th the Pro12 table showed Cardiff sitting 9th, with only Newport and the Italian sides below them. We were only one point closer to Munster in 6th than we were to Zebre and requiring close to a miracle run in to finish anywhere near a respectable position.

However, things were looking positive. Despite a slight up and down winter we had 11 points from our games during the Six Nations period and were set to welcome back our Wales internationals who has escaped from the tournament largely injury free. This meant that by the time Munster and Treviso arrived at the Arms Park in late March we could re-introduce Gethin Jenkins, Kris Dacey, Josh Turnbull, Sam Warburton, Lloyd Williams, Gareth Anscombe and Tom James across the two games.

The boost in quality saw two fantastic bonus point wins. Specifically against a strong Munster outfit who pushed all the way in a 37-28 victory. Despite being 20-11 and 27-18 up at different stages, when the Irish side came within six points with two minutes left I feared the worst, however young Jarrod Evans nailed a penalty with the final kick to even deny the visitors a losing bonus point.

Garyn Smith Munster
Garyn Smith scores vs Munster

 

On the back of that win confidence was really flowing and bottom club Treviso were owed a game after beating us in Italy just six weeks previously. Eight tries later and 56-8 showing on the scoreboard the revenge was complete and the team had played some of the best attacking rugby I’d seen from a Cardiff side in around six years.

The wins were a huge statement of intent that sixth place was not out of reach going into a trio of Welsh derbies in April. First up was the game we all want to win, but very rarely do, Llanelli away. Our West Wales rivals were challenging for the play-offs after a very successful season and retained an excellent record at home to Cardiff having not lost to us at Parc y Scarlets since 2010.

Ellis Jenkins Treviso
Ellis Jenkins crosses vs Treviso

 

There was a difference in the Cardiff side of late 2015/16 though. A steely determination and a resolve that would not be lost in a big derby game. From nine minutes in we took the lead from Gareth Anscombe’s boot until the last points of the game when he converted his own try. A masterclass in game management from the fly-half controlling an all-round excellent team performance led us to a 22-28 win.

From that win we were riding high and when welcoming Newport, who were pre-occupied with a European adventure, it was more of a case of ‘how many will we win by?’. Over-confident perhaps, but not without reason. By now the side was very settled around a group 25-27 players with only minimal changes required to the line-up. There was no envy at all over Danny Wilson having to pick the squad each week when so many players were on form.

Anscombe v Llanelli
Gareth Anscombe was in sublime form at Parc y Scarlets

 

Despite the game again being the ‘Gareth Anscombe Show’ it wasn’t exactly the points party we had hoped for. After Josh Turnbull and Rey Lee-Lo tries in the first half the bonus point was very much on the cards, but a resilient Newport defence kept us out until the last minute of the second period when Anscombe crossed. It made the 28-8 scoreline more comfortable but dented hopes of sixth place slightly.

It basically came down to Judgement Day, both in terms of our season and the event. Playing against the Ospreys at the Millennium Stadium is a big occasion anyway but in terms of the season it was massive. There were some team concerns though as Lloyd Williams and Rhys Patchell both picked up injuries  against Newport, while Tom James missed out with his partner due to give birth.

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Sam Warburton had to resort to chip kicks vs Newport

 

When Sam Warburton went off after 28 minutes it was a huge blow on top of those pre-game losses, but we still managed to get in 9-7 up at half-time thanks to Anscombe’s boot. The fly-half then turned creator at the start of the second period to send Aled Summerhill over, before Josh Navidi grabbed a well taken solo try. However, as tired legs set in Danny Wilson turned to a somewhat inexperienced bench.

With a back line containing four either first year professionals or academy players, as well as two academy props up front, leadership and game management somewhat deserted us. Ospreys began to flex their muscles and five second half tries with braces for Hanno Dirksen and Rhys Webb, as well as a Sam Underhill score, saw the away side eventually secure a 40-27 win.

Rhys Webb Ospreys
Unfortunately we could not stop Ospreys

 

Of course the main feeling post-match was disappointment as the loss spelled the end of our sixth place hopes. However to get to the second to last game of the season with that still a possibility was an incredible feat in itself. To lose it to Ospreys was a kick in the teeth, but the Swansea gloating lasted just a week as they lost to Ulster and we beat Edinburgh on the last weekend of the Pro12 season.

That win sent us seventh and almost perfectly summed up our season in 80 minutes. The game started very slowly and we spent all of the first half behind in the Scottish capital with only Rey Lee-Lo and Gareth Anscombe’s partnership providing a bit of try inspiration. However in five second half minutes Cardiff came from behind to claim the result thanks to Cam Dolan and Garyn Smith tries.

Cam Dolan Edinburgh
Cam Dolan’s first Pro12 try in Edinburgh

 

A high to end the season upon and finish just seven points off Champions Cup rugby. A huge amount of credit must go to Danny Wilson for totally revamping the club as a whole, and the the players and staff for buying into his vision. The squad seems a proper unit and the atmosphere amongst the players has greatly improved.

With a full summer of Wilson preparation, his own signings and his own squad to shape I think 2016/17 could be the most exciting season in a long while for Cardiff Blues fans everywhere. With a regular international window returning and no reason to leave the Arms Park for two months we have a real chance of at least making Champions Cup qualification. Without wanting to put too much pressure on the squad, I cannot wait to see what they can do in the new season. Come on Cardiff!!

Squad vs Edinburgh
The squad bond is stronger than ever

 

 

 

 

2015/16 Season Review: Winter of Inconsistency

The cup runs were over and Cardiff were out of both the European Challenge Cup and the British and Irish Cup. Despite positive performances throughout both campaigns the focus was now solely on the Pro12 but, after a dreadful opening to the season, the three league wins in December meant the second half of 2015/16 looked promising.

2015/16 Season Review Part 5: British and Irish Cup and European review: https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/201516-season-review-europe-and-bic/

As the end of January rolled around it was time again for the annual exodus of Team Wales players to be beasted by Warren Gatland so the team to take on Edinburgh for our return to Pro12 action was without Kris Dacey, Gethin Jenkins, Josh Turnbull, Sam Warburton, Lloyd Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Cory Allen and Alex Cuthbert.

This gave a number of academy players the chance to shine with Aled Summerhill, Elis Wyn Benham, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams, Dillon Lewis, Ethan Lewis and Brad Thyer all involved in the match day 23. Joining the youngsters was the experience of Australian international tight head Salesi Ma’afu making his debut after arriving from Toulon in December.

The slightly makeshift starting XV managed to absolutely fly out of the blocks with Dan Fish crossing from the first attack of the game after being released by good hands from Summerhill and Jarrad Hoeata. Rhys Patchell notched the tricky conversion and slotted a penalty 15 minutes later, before Edinburgh’s Nathan Fowles got a penalty of his own which was it for the scoring, after just 22 minutes.

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Dan Fish slides over for the only try vs Edinburgh

 

There was an hour of no score despite regular trips to the red zone for Cardiff, but Patchell and Manoa Vosawai both had tries narrowly chalked off by the TMO and the driving maul just could not get over the line. We also spent 10 fruitless minutes playing against 14 Edinburgh men, who themselves never really looked like taking the win despite being just seven points behind for most of the match.

This lacklustre performance, albeit one that secured a win, would set the tone for the next few weeks. First up was a trip out to Treviso for what was becoming an increasingly bogey game. It was no different this time as we went down 13-7. In a similar showing to the Edinburgh game it was a low scoring game where we never really got going.

Treviso started much the better side and went 6-0 up thanks to the boot of Jayden Hayward, before a converted try from Blaine Scully, his first in the Pro12, put Cardiff ahead. Looking strong either side of half-time it seemed we’d push on but a dominant Treviso scrum five metres out eventually produced a penalty try and no amount of attacking from us could get the win from a rainy Northern Italy.

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Blaine Scully’s first Pro12 try wasn’t enough vs Treviso

 

The next week Leinster were the first team to arrive at CAP in February in the middle of some even worse weather. The wind and rain howled as the game was dominated with pick-and-go drives due to kicking being largely hopeless. Some short range penalties from Ian Madigan and Gareth Anscombe got points on the board though resulting in a 6-9 Leinster lead.

On the hour mark the sucker punch was delivered as Isa Nacewa disappeared up the short side from inside his own half to score a breakaway try. This sparked Cardiff into life and wave after wave of attack was thrown at the Leinster line until Josh Navidi touched down with a few minutes to go, unfortunately too little too late. However, this last minute comeback attempt would set a tone for the next few games.

Gareth Anscombe Leinster
Gareth Anscombe attempts a kick in the terrible weather

 

Leinster’s Irish counterparts Ulster were next up at CAP and at 6-13 down at the beginning of the second half things were not looking good again. The difference now though was that the attacking instinct had returned and late tries from Rhys Patchell and Aled Summerhill meant it was an excellent 23-13 Cardiff win. Unfortunately the Six Nations period limped to an end for us, just as it did for Wales.

At this point of the season we were becoming a very black and white team for a side that plays in blue. When we were good we were unbeatable, but when we were bad then it was almost like returning to the Phil Davies days. The challenge for Danny Wilson was to get the players playing at the top of their game for at least more than 40 minutes.

Summerhill Ulster
The comeback win vs Ulster was confirmed through Aled Summerhill’s try

 

A trip to Glasgow was the way to start March and the search for a game where the majority of the time is spent playing well went on. The Scots battered us up front for the entire first 40 minutes with tries from Gordon Reid and Tim Swinson, as well as Duncan Weir’s boot, putting them 20-0 up. Cardiff were in the game possession-wise, but never looked like doing anything with it.

A half-time rocket from Wilson, alongside four early second half substitutions, lifted the team and eventually after 56 minutes, Rhys Patchell got us on the board.From this point on it was sheer Cardiff domination which eventually broke the Glasgow lines through a Dan Fish chip and chase. 10 minutes to go and 10 points down there was to be a huge end to the encounter.

From the kick-off Aled Summerhill was, somewhat unfairly in my view, sin binned for ‘taking a man out in the air’. Glasgow subsequently went to the corner and drove Simone Favaro over. At this point the game seemed up, but there was a never say die attitude amongst the side that was long overdue. All inside the last three minutes Ellis Jenkins and Macauley Cook both went over to score, and Patchell nailed both conversions to secure the most unlikely bonus point.

Despite a very up and down few weeks during the Six Nations Cardiff still managed to emerge with 11 points from five games. After the nightmare of the first few months of the season this was still a decent haul and set us up for a late season assault on the top six.

Although we saw some of the most frustrating moments of the season there was also the encouraging signs of a dominant second half in Glasgow and an excellent win at home to Ulster. With the Six Nations players ready to return surprisingly injury free, we were in for an exciting last few months of 2015/16.

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Dan Fish got on the scoreboard again vs Glasgow

 

2015/16 Season Review: Europe and BIC

A mid-season break in the end of year review for the Pro12 to allow the cup competitions to have their analysis. Overall it was a disappointing campaign results wise in the European and domestic cups but they were both tinged with optimism as there were plenty of indicators to show better things are on the way.

Starting at home and the first season of the Cardiff A team representing the club in the British and Irish Cup. The idea was that the team would be made up of young players and Premiership players from the Rags and Pontypridd, but wisely the management used it as a majority young players, a few fringe senior players and only a very small minority Ponty players to make up the numbers and keep the Valleys a tiny bit happy.

Unfortunately results did not go as expected and it was a tough learning curve for the new side. The group stages started with a home game against Nottingham which was drawn 20-20 in seriously windy conditions, before a trip to Old Deer Park was ruined by an Olly Barkley inspired London Welsh mounting a very late comeback. The December double header saw us lose at home to Cornish Pirates before gaining a first win in the return game. Another agonising loss to London Welsh ended any qualification hopes, meaning the final loss to Nottingham was a dead rubber.

Owen Jenkins scores the first ever Cardiff A try vs Nottingham

I wrote immediately after the BIC campaign finished that, although many Pontypridd fans would point to the results as a means to mock the decision of taking their participation in the competition away, the development aspect of the whole exercise was the most important thing. It gives a chance for current academy players to experience a stepping stone between the Premiership and Pro12, while the younger senior players are given a chance to show what they can do and if they deserve a shot in the first team.

That point has been proved true as I sit here looking back on the season as a whole. We have seen a number of youth players such as Dillon and Ethan Lewis, Tomos Williams and Brad Thyer really make an impact on the first team having played in the BIC while a number of others have been deemed not good enough by Danny Wilson and management on the back of A team performances, Joe Jones, Elis Wyn Benham and Jordan Viggers amongst others. Finally, players on the periphery of the first team, Owen Jenkins, Miles Normandale and Jevon Groves to name a few, have been released after failing to impress in this environment.

It has been confirmed that the BIC will stay with professional club A sides next season, a move that will see the next generation of academy players given a chance as well as appearing in the LV Cup. With these players training together more often, and Cardiff RFC serving as a more full-time yet unofficial A side to facilitate this, hopefully the results will come next season to compliment the player development.

Aled Summerhill is another who has stepped up from BIC to Pro12

Of course the ultimate goal is to mould these players into European rugby winners in the Cardiff blue shirt, and we could certainly do with a few more of them! This season’s campaign was never going to be easy from the moment the draw was made. Italian qualifiers Calvisano were always to be the group whipping boys, but aside from that the big boys of the Top 14, Montpellier, and the Aviva Premiership, Harlequins were going to prove extremely tricky.

The pool kicked off with a straight forward hammering of Calvisano, 9-50, over in Italy, but it meant little as we were brought back down to earth by Harlequins the next week by 20-32 at the Arms Park. The Italian result aside it was a time when we were in the midst of our early season losing run, but still it was a disappointment to be so easily brushed aside by a distinctly second string Quins outfit.

Fortunately, by the time the December European double header came around we were back in a bit of form, and we would definitely need it to take on Montpellier twice in a week. That form though would result in a performance for the ages, a really special night under the lights at CAP. The 37-27 scoreline saw a bonus point victory which went down as a real turning point of the season, giving us the belief and confidence to really kick on. Unfortunately it was not quite to be repeated the following week when an 80th minute converted try, aided by some dodgy English refereeing, meant we went down by a point.

Alex Cuthbert scores vs Montpellier

Six points from the two games though put us in a good position as we travelled to London to give Harlequins the game they missed out on in November, and they nearly avoided it again when we completely failed to show up for the first half. However, from 28-0 down at the break we won the second half 6-26 to get within a single point of a losing bonus point. It left us needing an unholy amount of fixtures to go our way after a 12-try destruction of Calvisano but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.

In the end we were left wondering what could have been if we’d been in form against Harlequins in November, or if we could have got over the line in either the away loss to them or in Montpellier. What it did leave though was that sense of faith from the fans to the players and the players in themselves. It was the catalyst for a post-Christmas Pro12 resurgence and saw us so close to Champions Cup qualification.

At one point towards the end of last season I believed that next season’s Challenge Cup should be a chance to rest key players for our Pro12 campaign, but Cardiff is an historically successful European Cup. We hark back to 2010 all the time so, second tier competition or not, we should put our minds to winning it. If I play as I know we can, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. Come on Cardiff!!

Let’s get back to days like this

2015/16 Season Review: Tis The Season To Be Jolly

Seven straight Pro12 defeats between September and November meant that by the time December rolled around there was very little festive cheer to be found in and around Cardiff Blues. Floundering at the foot of the table along with the Italian sides and still the worst performing Welsh regions it was looking bleak on paper, but after encouraging performances against Glasgow and Ospreys there was a minimal amount of extremely cautious optimism.

Things could only get better from an horrendous run of losses: https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/201516-season-review-things-can-only-get-better/

The first match of the month came on a bitterly cold Arms Park Friday night where we hosted early season pacemakers Connacht. The team was largely unchanged from that which lost in Swansea the previous week, only Rhys Patchell returning through injury and Sam Warburton departing for the same reason. Sam’s misfortune meant Josh Turnbull started at 7 alongside Macauley Cook at 6, and with Manoa Vosawai at 8 the heavy big carrying boys put us on the front foot throughout.

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Manoa Vosawai formed part of a physical back row trio

 

 

Vos scored inside 10 minutes and Tom James’ quality finish in the second half, along with Patchell’s increasingly reliable boot, meant it was a 20-16 win. It really should have been more as the backs looked dangerous at all times, while the forwards were largely dominant but struggled to convert field position into points as driving mauls fell short and a lack of composure in the red zone led to missed opportunities.

With a slender lead Connacht threw the kitchen sink at us towards the end of the game but the defence looked much improved and held strong for an excellent victory over the league leaders, one that not many would have predicted. The momentum from this win was still rolling as we headed into the festive derby period with a trip to Newport first on the agenda.

Tom James Connacht
Tom James’ outstretched arm proved the difference

 

 

As the side was becoming settled in it’s selection it was also being boosted by the return of key players from injury, Josh Navidi and Alex Cuthbert both starting this game while Cory Allen took a seat on the bench. This was having a real solid affect on the togetherness of the group which shone through in this hard fought and fast-paced Cardiff-Newport game.

Newport started better and it seemed like the game might run away from us as Ashton Hewitt’s try and Dorian Jones’ boot looked like our title of perennial Welsh derby bottlers would live on for another year, until 15 minutes from time when Lewis Evans slapped down the final pass before a clear try. 10 minutes in the bin for him and a penalty try gave us a lease of life which we duly acted on when the increasingly deadly duo of Fish and James linked up again to give TJ yet another try on his comeback year.

Rhys Patchell’s missed conversion stopped us from drawing level with five minutes to play but as the clock was just seconds away from turning red he stepped up to strike a penalty over won by that man James. With the pressure on the young full-back kicked it beautifully and we celebrated a stolen victory long into the night.

Rhys Patchell Newport
Rhys Patchell celebrates his last-gasp winning kick

 

After the high of the previous Sunday it was time to go again on New Year’s Day as the fans dragged themselves to CAP in their droves with 11,000 people witnessing the second derby of the period, Cardiff v Llanelli. The Turks had begun the season well, benefitting from the World Cup period, and were high in confidence for their visit to the big City, but Cardiff welcomed back Cory Allen to the starting line-up as well as Dan Fish and looked very strong.

Like the previous week the action was fast and fierce, while also similar was the speed that Cardiff started with. Tries from Ken Owens and DTH Van der Merwe inside 15 minutes put Llanelli easily ahead, and only really a Cory Allen try kept the score at 10-20 on the break. However the fighting spirit of Newport remained to see Dan Fish and Kris Dacey cross in the second half.

A Gareth Davies converted try saw the away side retake a five point lead with just over 10 minutes to go but it was another last gasp effort from a resilient Cardiff under Danny Wilson which saw Alex Cuthbert cross under the posts. A much simpler winning kick followed for Patchell and the game was seen out comfortably. A bonus point try to wrap up the Christmas period and 13 points from our last three games, what a change!

By now the side was becoming pretty regular, the only changes coming from very healthy competition for places and to rest players. The settled nature of the team, plus the strong team spirit shown, was a World away from the chopping and changing of Ireland and the lacklustre performances as a result. As we entered 2016 the positivity was flowing and a big few weeks of European rugby awaited….

Cuthbert Llanelli
Alex Cuthbert and Tom James were firing us to better things

2015/16 Season Review: Things Can Only Get Better

As the end of October rolled around and we managed to get out of Ireland after four largely disappointing performances we had the pleasure of a trip to Italy to look forward to. Generally Italy is the happy hunting ground for all 10 of the Pro12 teams that aren’t Italian so I think it’s fair to say there isn’t a much better fixture to have on the back of four straight defeats.

Things did not go well in Ireland: https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/category/season-review/going-downhill/

It was Zebre we would face on this trip which, after battering them 61-13 just five games previously while scoring a Cardiff Blues record number of tries, was not a bad game to get a confidence booster from. The team was aided by the return of Lloyd Williams from the World Cup, Tom James from injury and the arrival of new signing Blaine Scully. It really should have been a repeat of the opening game but it was not to be as within five minutes the home side scored a try.

Starting immediately on the back foot spelled disaster and by the time the final whistle went we were 26-15 down. A real kick in the teeth to suffer our first defeat away to Zebre and a real signal of how confidence has hit absolute rock bottom. The team was playing no expansive rugby to get danger men James, Scully and Fish involved, while the defence often looked at sixes and sevens.

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The players look rightly disappointed after losing to Zebre

 

To be four points down with 20 minutes to go, get 10 of those minutes against 14 men, and not come out with anything is inexcusable. Early questions were being asked of Danny Wilson’s regime amid the lack of desire seemingly shown by a number of players used in the squad and no signs of any of the playing issues being addressed.

Fortunately a period of restbite from travelling was around the corner as with the World Cup over Cardiff Arms Park was no longer a fan zone and able to host Glasgow to start November. The reigning champions were welcoming a large number of Scottish internationals back into their side, but similarly Danny Wilson made seven changes to the starting XV as Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Lloyd Williams, Gethin Jenkins, Kris Dacey and Sam Warburton all made their first starts following World Cup duty, and Gavin Evans had recovered from injury.

The fresh blood certainly made a difference as only a second half Glaswegian comeback saw 17-8 and 23-15 leads slip to 30-35 final score thanks to a last minute penalty try from a deliberate Stuart Hogg knock on. It was a much improved performance overall as for the first time since Zebre at home two months previously, we spent more of the 80 minutes playing well than playing poorly. The speed of Lloyd at 9 setting up a basis to attack off was the key, everything else works from that.

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Gavin Evans got on the scoresheet v Glasgow

 

Week 8 of the Pro12 came along as November drew to a close and the first Welsh derby came with it as we drove West to the Ospreys. Injuries to Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe thrust academy fly-half Jarrod Evans into the 10 shirt and it was an assured debut from the youngster. Around him the side was becoming more settled under Wilson which was an encouragement after the chopping and changing on the Irish tour.

Dreadful weather at the Liberty Stadium hindered a real chance to put an end to the six game league losing run against a similarly struggling Ospreys. With the score just 3-0 to us at half-time it was in the end an Alun Wyn Jones score and the boot of Sam Davies that gave the Swansea side a 13-7 win. That left us languishing in 9th just a point ahead of Zebre and only above Newport on points difference.

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Jarrod Evans’ boot could not kick us to victory in Swansea

 

A month of slight improvements and confidence boosting player returns saw the screw turning, albeit slowly. 10 points from a possible 40 in the opening three months of the season, plus a seven game losing streak was far from what was wanted, but the little signs of encouragement was there. The defence was tightening and the ball was being shifted much quicker to get the back line moving.

The signs of improvement were encouraging but the win was so elusive as we entered December. However, brighter things were soon to come in the season to be jolly….

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Tries are coming….

 

2015/16 Season Review: Heading Downhill

After a summer of change, which saw a new coaching staff come in headed up by Danny Wilson, had finished, pre-season had been completed and the first Pro12 game of the season had been comfortably won it was time to get into the thick of things. With the 2015 Rugby World Cup now fully underway the Arms Park had been transformed into a fan zone which meant a baptism of fire for Wilson in five consecutive away games.

Season Review Part One – A Promising Start:  https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2016/05/14/201516-season-review-a-promising-start/

Now, five away games in a row may seem quite tough, but when the first four are against each Irish province then it becomes a huge challenge. I think if we’re honest as fans we would have taken one win and a losing bonus point or two going into the tour of the Emerald Isle. With international players away and a few injuries, as well as a new coaching team still getting used to running the club, six points from a possible 20 would be a fair return.

First up was Dublin and a visit to the RDS to play Leinster, also adjusting to life under a new coach in Leo Cullen. The team was picked with an experienced edge to it, only wingers Owen Jenkins and Aled Summerhill really lacking in Pro12 minutes and getting a chance in the absence of Tom James and Alex Cuthbert. Neither really got a sniff of the action though as Rhys Patchell scored all of our 15 points on the day.

It was a hard slog up front that would settle the game as both sides relied on set pieces and big ball carrying to make the yards. Manoa Vosawai and Josh Navidi showed up well in the metres made section but there was too many handling errors to make a real impact on the Leinster red zone. Poor fringe defence eventually let us down, a comment that won’t be mentioned for the first time, as we conceded our first try in Ireland.

Another thing that will be brought up again is the shoddy refereeing in the Pro12 and it reared it’s head in Dublin as with a few minutes to go and just a point down, the touch judge spots an infringement from a Leinster driving maul that sees Navidi penalised and sin binned. I watched the incident a lot at the time and when writing this and I still don’t see it. The home side went to the scrum and Ben Whitehouse, a non-neutral referee, ran straight to the posts.

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Rhys Patchell kicked all our points vs Leinster

 

So after having one of the six points snatched from us late in the day at the RDS there was three weeks during the World Cup group stage to think about it and we were off to Galway and to face Connacht, the Irish development region boosted by a healthy sum of IRFU money. Wilson made three changes to the Cardiff starting XV with Richard Smith, Lou Reed and Ellis Jenkins starting in place of Owen Jenkins, James Down and Manoa Vosawai. Following a narrow loss in a forwards battle during the previous game, we were in for a treat here.

Inside 10 minutes Aled Summerhill scored our first try on tour from an interception, before Connacht were allowed back into it through more poor fringe defence, strong mauling and generally good attacking. Either side of half-time we fought back through Josh Turnbull’s carrying and Rhys Patchell’s boot, before a fantastic piece of individual skill saw Dan Fish dribble soccer style over the line.

Of course we let Connacht take the lead from us again with two tries in five minutes before a late missed Gareth Davies penalty, followed by a successful home side kick meant we were staring down the barrel of no points in two games. It came down, as it so often does against the Galway side, to a late score and this time it was Sam Hobbs providing the goods. As he burrowed over from a yard he not only secured a losing bonus point, but also a try scoring bonus point!

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Dan Fish finishes off his solo try

 

Although Connacht was probably the game we should have pinpointed to win, two bonus points wasn’t a total disaster of a return. There were some encouraging signs at the halfway point of the tour as for the twenty minute period either side of half-time in Galway we were easily the better team, the set piece was looking decent and the carrying from the forwards was strong. However, inconsistent performance and lazy defence meant work was still to be done before the visit to Munster in mid-October.

A further three starting XV changes were made with Garyn Smith and Matthew Rees starting alongside the returning Manoa Vosawai as the injured Aled Summerhill, Kris Dacey and Josh Navidi missed out. You may have thought the lessons of the last two games had been learned, but you would have thought wrong as a strong start saw a try for Tavis Knoyle before Munster were allowed to take the lead with back-to-back tries.

A half-time salvo saw tries for Richard Smith and Tommy Isaacs both from well worked attacks but, yet again, the opposition are allowed back into the game cheaply. At the time it was deeply frustrating to watch and even writing about it now it still gets to me how easily we would roll over and let teams into games which we should have been controlling. On this occasion we go from twice leading the game by 10 points to missing out on a losing bonus point by a single score.

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Tavis Knoyle reaches for the line to score against Munster

 

The final game of the tour of the Emerald Isle took place in Belfast and it seems like a waste of your time to tell you what happened, but let’s just say Patchell’s boot put us ahead, we stopped playing to allow Ulster to all but win the game before a Navidi try and Patchell penalty salvaged a losing bonus point. A better way to end the Irish trip but it was just painting over the cracks of gaining three points and never playing well for more than 20 minutes at a time.

Over the four games in Ireland Danny Wilson used 34 players in his squads, a lot when you consider ten players were missing due to the World Cup. We came back with an overall score aggregate of 118-90, eight tries scored to fifteen conceded, four yellow cards received, a three week ban for one players and just three league points. The stats don’t make particularly great reading.

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Josh Navidi breaks a tackle against Ulster

 

In review of the whole tour we know now that actually the time in Ireland was certainly a character builder, and gave Wilson a good chance to assess his wider squad. In the long term I think we’ll look back on that month or two as a pretty solid foundation for Danny’s reign. However that doesn’t take away from the disappointing performances at the time and left us largely on the back foot when it came to competing in the Pro12 already, but worst was still to come…

A review of the Irish tour at the time: https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/10/30/an-ireland-tour-the-review/

 

 

2015/16 Season Review: A Promising Start

Another season came and another season has gone as we bade farewell to the 2015/16 campaign with a win in Edinburgh last weekend. It’s been a long old slog of a year that at one point seemed like it would be a total disaster but, with full credit to head coach Danny Wilson, his coaching staff and the players, they have turned it around both on the pitch and off of it.

When searching for a cliché to define this year it’s been tough to be honest. ‘A tale of two halves’ doesn’t quite define it as despite a marked improvement from Christmas onwards there has still been setbacks, while ‘so close yet so far’ belies the positives that should be taken overall. In the end I’ve settled on ‘the best is yet to come’ as although the finish to the season was a good one, I truly believe we have the makings of an excellent side here.

A Promising Start

We start the season review by casting our minds back to the back end of 2014/15. I would say that as that campaign drew to a close we were at our lowest point as the Cardiff Blues. 10th place in the Pro12, bottom of all the Welsh sides, closer to the Italian teams than the Champions Cup and on the hunt for our fifth different coaching setup in as many years.

It wasn’t until the early June that confirmation came through of who would be heading up that coaching team when Bristol forwards coach Danny Wilson was officially announced Head Coach, importantly not Director of Rugby. With an impressive CV of coaching at Cardiff RFC, Wales U20, Llanelli, Newport and Bristol he had the experience of professional rugby, but never in a leadership capacity. A calculated risk you might say, but it was a fresh start.

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Danny Wilson was appointed the new Head Coach

 

Wilson retained Paul John as his attack coach, while bringing in rugby league legend Graham Steadman as his defence coach from Newcastle Falcons, supported by development pathway manager Richard Hodges. A fairly inexperienced set up in coaching terms but plenty of rugby knowledge.

Joining the new coaching staff were new player signings in American internationals Blaine Scully and Cameron Dolan, from Leicester and Northmaption respectively, Rey Lee-Lo from Super Rugby’s Hurricanes and an old face in post-2003 club top try scorer Tom James, who returned from Exeter Chiefs. Unfortunately only TJ would be instantly available while the others were off at the Rugby World Cup.

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The prodigal son returned as Tom James re-signed last summer

 

Pre-season came around at the end of August with fixtures away to Wilson’s old side Bristol and home to next door neighbours Newport. Across the two games 40 players were used as players were evaluated and given game time to impress, while a number of different partnerships were tested in key areas such as half-back, and the back row. Of the players used 11 were senior academy members, including 17 year old Owen Lane at centre.

High scoring encounters of a 26-31 win in Bristol and a 28-35 loss to Newport were certainly entertaining, but results aren’t really the important part of pre-season and the number of players used, specifically youngsters, was encouraging and would be a sign of things to come. With both games done and the Rugby World Cup ready to kick-off, the Pro12 got off to an understated start.

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Tavis Knoyle scores the winner against Bristol

 

It took all of 23 minutes of Danny Wison’s first game in charge at the Arms Park to break down traditional league whipping boys Zebre, but once the gates were open it was easy for the tries to follow. In the end it became a record breaking 61-13 win as 11 tries, the most by a Cardiff Blues side, were run in with Josh Navidi, Aled Summerhill and Tom James bagging braces, while Josh Turnbull and Rhys Patchell claimed hat-tricks.

An early season confidence booster before being forced onto the road by the World Cup, little did we know that a large downhill slope was around the corner…

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Rhys Patchell was one of the hat-trick heroes vs Zebre