These early rounds of the PRO14 remind me of a tour of all the places you got dumped in your hometown as a teenager a few years later.
See that bridge over there? That’s where Mary said she wanted “space”. See the back of that hall there? That’s where Elaine realised she liked Dave better – screw you, Dave, by the way, with your nice hair and teeth – and decided that ol’ Tom was for the road. See Scotstoun over there? That’s where Munster essentially lost the game in the first 30 minutes through a barrage of conceded penalties and tries. See Cardiff Arms Park right over yonder? The same thing happened there almost exactly.
Now imagine walking through your old hometown, wincing at these memories and cringing away at your past, heavily acned self and running into that old ex where, after an awkward wave, she proceeds to stop, walk over to you, and then go over the reasons why she dumped you all over again. That was Scotstoun in Round 2 of this year’s PRO14. Munster lost to Glasgow in broadly the same way that we did to them last year in the same spot and mostly for the same reasons.
Maybe that’s why Munster have gone with such a strong selection for this game. For me, that first half in Cardiff was the second worst one we’d put down all season – the undisputed #1 was in Bordeaux, by the way – so why wouldn’t you target this fixture for a bit of mental rehab? Johann Van Graan has selected, arguably, a Heineken Cup level pack bar hooker with Carbery, Conway, Scannell and Taute in the backline. This is the selection equivalent of getting your best gear on and going for a championship haircut before walking down memory lane in your hometown just in case Elaine is waiting around the corner for a chat.
Dump me for Dave now.
I’ll go into these teams in detail on the Blood & Thunder Podcast.
The Red Eye Report: Cardiff Blues
This report is based on the side Cardiff have selected in their previous three games.
An “A” would be considered top class by Champions Cup standards, a “B” would be considered good by regular Champions Cup standard, a “C” would be considered decent by PRO14 level, a “D” would be considered below par by PRO14 standards and an “E” would be something I’d consider an exploitable weakness.
Offensive Scrummaging – C
Defensive Scrummaging – C
Attacking Lineout – C
Defensive Lineout – C
Offensive Maul – C
Defensive Maul – D
Defensive Structure – C
Phase Play Power – C
Attacking Creativity – C
Structured Attack Off Set Piece – B
Structured Defence Off Set Piece – C
Overall Fitness – B
Kicking – B
Back Three Kick Positioning – B
If we’re to assess the threat of this game, we have to look at what went wrong in the last one. These two articles I did last year after the 25-18 losing bonus point defeat in Cardiff give a fairly good summation of where I think things went wrong on both sides of the ball.
We lost the breakdown battle for tempo, which is a particular killer on an artificial surface, and didn’t make the most of our possession when we had the ball. Cardiff did a good job of targeting Cloete on their initial carries and mostly prevented Robin Copeland and others from slowing down their ruck possession. With that kind of quick ball, Cardiff could pick and choose their options and found gaps all through Munster’s defensive fringes on phase play and wider out off of the set piece, in particular.
Munster turned the game around somewhat in the third quarter but couldn’t press home a sin bin advantage before nabbing a LBP with the last kick of the game. Handling errors, half back decisions, missed kicks and defensive lapses were the story of this defeat and it would provide a preview of everything that would go wrong in the first 30 minutes of the Champions Cup semi-final in Bordeaux a few months later.
The first part of rectifying this lies in the breakdown. Artificial surfaces play quicker, so your breakdown and contact area has to be slow in defence. Last season, Cardiff were able to do a job on our primary jackal, Cloete, and nullify Copeland as the second man with too much ease. They were the only starting heavy jackals in the pack. This time around, Munster have FIVE – Cronin, Beirne, O’Mahony, Cloete and Stander. If we can slow down Cardiff’s ruck possession, we can force them to play a kick chase and lineout game that they don’t want to play.
In attack, Cardiff like to play with width to negate their lack of major ball carriers up the middle of the pitch. You’ll see them running a rough pair of three-man forward pods on big openside plays like this quite a bit;
Evans stitches both of these pods together to add that extra bit of width to the play. Cardiff don’t really like to chain through the phases close to the ruck unless they have very quick ball – as they did last season against us – because man for man, they aren’t the biggest or baddest in contact outside of Nick Williams and that is especially true for their selection here.
The first hit up pod in the middle of the pitch has a built-in ruck behind it to speed up the ruck and discourage the jackal. Cardiff do this quite a bit on their first carry off a ruck like the above and I’ve noted that their handling – especially when Dacey is carrying close to the ruck – is a little prone to knock-ons and rips in contact. They get moderately quick ball in this instance and use Evans to hit the second pod and, in this instance, the outside pass to Davies.
Davies isn’t playing in this one – as of yet – but that outside pass to the edge of the pod is something that Cardiff like to do a fair bit, especially when Dacey is a central man in the pod.
They stick Davies (I suspect it might be Jenkins or Navidi here) outside of Dacey for a tip on, a pass reception or as ruck support.
Cardiff tend to go for that wider option off an initial big hit up on the left/right of the pitch through Arhip, Williams or Turnbull and then hit the openside with Halaholo or Lee-Lo striking off the edge of that pod.
It didn’t work in this instance, but it gives you an idea of how Cardiff use that outside edge pod forward to elongate their attack and attack any hinge in the defence outside “C”. Here’s an example of the latter where Davies hits the line really late but Dacey is swallowed up by the defence before he can hit that late arrival line from Davies.
This late hinging run from the outside edge forward is a constant in Cardiff’s attacking patterns on the second pass or off a dominant carry.
There are real opportunities for an intercept here if timed right on that outside runner, be it Jenkins, Navidi or Earle but it’s risk/reward.
We can really go after the initial Cardiff carry through Cloete and Beirne in particular, as Cardiff have shown a tendency to lose possession in that first heavy pod contact over the last three games, especially in tight quarters.
Cardiff are a dangerous side off the lineout and scrum set piece, as we found last season.
I wouldn’t say that they’re a massive mauling side from long range – I think we’ll have a distinct advantage in the pack here – but they are really good at playing off the lineout, with a number of schemes designed around the threat of a Nick Williams hit up off a 6 man lineout.
Their first try against Leinster came directly from a Williams decoy screen sitting down Tomane and making a corner for Evans to put Halaholo away.
Williams initial hard line outside Lee-Lo is the key part of this lineout design because of the disrupted space it creates after the contact.
The threat of the Williams carry sits down Tomane – targeting the heavy defender outside the 10 is key here – and that opens up O’Loughlin and Daly to get isolated and targeted.
This is a key part of Cardiff’s lineout schemes.
You can see Harries floating behind the play here too;
Cardiff use him as a strike running alternate on a version of this scheme where he takes the second pullback from Evans and then feeds Anscombe for Scully to have a crack off the 5m channel. It’s Morgan and Lane in the below instance but the play pattern will be the same.
Lee-Lo passes back off a Williams hard decoy, Halaholo takes out the covering midfielder, and Cardiff get a surge up far side. Cardiff like to use this lineout design whenever they have Williams on the pitch because the regular hit up with Williams/Lee-Lo hitting that channel is a constant threat, mitigated somewhat by having Stander defending opposite and Cloete steaming over from the tail of the lineout. That’s a real live possibility of a turnover given that Williams would be initially cleaned out by two midfielders if he carries and Williams would be out of position to support a ruck if Lee-Lo does it.
If they get that initial strike on the gainline, the outside pod rule still applies. Look at that Dacey to outside edge forward attacking the seam.
If Munster can worry Cardiff at the breakdown, we can be fairly sure that most of the time when Cardiff line Williams and Lee-Lo up on this play, it’ll be V1 – Evans to Halaholo – or V2 – Evans to Harries on the wide.
If we can stop Cardiff’s attacking work off the lineout – either at the source or by winning collisions and reads on their wider plays – we’ll be a long way to getting what we want from this game.
The Bash Brothers
Cardiff have two main defensive threats – their three heavy jackals in Williams, Jenkins and Navidi – and the defensive impact of Lee-Lo and Halaholo.
First, their jackals. Their entire back row are breakdown specialists and all are capable of winning turnovers all over the field where they can attack in tandem, like here;
Or survive the cleanout off a maul break like this;
Jenkins and Navidi are the more mobile of the three, so they are the most dangerous off maul breaks, where Williams is needed for his size on most occasions. Maul breaks have a high percentage chance of working against the Blues but only if you can draw all 8 into the contest. When you leave one or two out before breaking, you run the risk of a turnover like this close to the maul. The rucking and physicality of Taute – or a Chris Cloete standing off the maul – will be vital in these exchanges.
In open play, I think Cardiff are a little vulnerable to over blitzing when they lose a big collision on the side of the pitch not defended by Lee-Lo and Halaholo. These are two really physical midfielders who love a big hit but they can leave themselves exposed to over blitzing directly in the aftermath of a big carry with quick ball further infield. This can leave dog legs and bad spacing opportunities for the likes of Cabery and Hanrahan to attack.
On this example, I think Byrne goes for a suboptimal option in hitting O’Loughlin coming against the grain but you can see how separated Lee-Lo and Halaholo were from the rest of the line.
Again, Cardiff lose the collision, give up quick ball and the two lads blitzing gets revealed.
When you catch one of them on their own, you can almost always catch a hard blitz if they see a guy in the second layer.
This is where playing with, essentially, two out-halves could really work. We free up Scannell and Taute to act as a holding pod, with Carbery and Hanrahan switching between carrying behind a (1) forward pod or tucking in behind (2) Taute/Scannell. With the likes of Cloete, Sweetnam and Conway running tight lines off Carbery/Hanrahan at (2) there could be real space to attack, especially after a big midfield hit up.
Cardiff’s defence with Halaholo and Lee-Lo really goes after screens that aren’t set correctly or that don’t have the right amount of animation to sell the initial carry. Leinster used a lot of direct one-out carries to draw in the Cardiff tacklers (and jackals, in some cases) to a narrow area of the pitch, retained possession and then struck at the Lee-Lo and Halaholo combination with numbers, layered attack and pace on the outside. Cardiff’s midfield is incredibly physical and aggressive but they do leave space when they overblitz after they think they have a read. We can kick through them and beyond them for the likes of Conway and Sweetnam to chase, because they will leave space behind.
I would expect our maul to be quite dominant here against a Cardiff pack that is built for pace and mobility outside of Arhip, Earle and Williams. All of Turnbull, Navidi, Dacey and Jenkins have mobility and handling to burn. Munster can win this game by taking the pace out of Cardiff’s attack, denying their main ball-carrying impact off the lineout, using our maul advantage and bringing our forwards on against their forwards man on man.
We should get a fair amount of lineout opportunities here given the way usually exit Cardiff exit, albeit with a caveat. We have the capability to dominate them in the maul and we must know that Cardiff know that. Their selection is light when it comes to the heavy exchanges, so they may decide to kick infield more than usual – that gives us opportunities to catch them on transition, where both Zebre and Leinster caught them out.
It’ll be difficult, but how Munster look to crack the Cardiff code will be interesting to watch.