By Sion Ford
To describe the beginning of the Blues’ season as disappointing is an underwhelmingly familiar feeling, and one that is made all the more frustrating given where this squad was coming from. That is, a Challenge Cup winning year which saw the Blues move away from some of the old clichés that haunted. Poor defence, inability to kill a game off, falling by the wayside when it really matters.
Or at least that’s one way to look at it. The other being that this a steady squad who are under the stewardship of a new head coach and backroom staff. That in spite of racking up three last-minute losses in their opening three fixtures, they’ve demonstrated an ability to carve teams apart and exert genuine pressure and competition. That this group of players are so close, but agonisingly far from developing the habit of winning.
Consider the first game of the season, a Friday night fixture against defending league champions Leinster where Cardiff was looking at its best. Yes, this was against a Leinster team which has drawn much criticism for its complete lack of profile players. And yes, from a position of 29-14 up you shouldn’t be losing at home. But this is Leinster, and Leinster are rightly or wrongly the set-up in the Northern Hemisphere envied by all.
This is where it gets harder to stay upbeat, as the Blues travelled to both Italian clubs and again saw a winning position disappear. Benetton were the first, a fixture that used to be a guaranteed (if scrappy) win now looking evermore formidable in the shadow of their essentially-international pack. A typical away team performance saw the score at the break 16-10 in the Blues’ favour, and yet the same old stories of losing the battle up front when it mattered most reappeared. Combined with a lack of whatever you want to call it, the ability to see out a game, the Blues were downed in the last minute, again.
Then came the trip to Parma, the game against Zebre being billed as a make-or-break by new head coach Mulvihill, who said “we can’t repeat what happened last and lose five or six in a row… we’ve got to win next week”. Within eleven minutes, the Blues had already scored and converted three tries, but all they could muster in the second half was a penalty. Zebre, in stark contrast, ended the first half with a try before adding three later additions to, again, take away the win in the last minute.
What, then, lies in store for the Blues this season? It’s not an exciting answer, but instead a pragmatic one. It will be another building year for the Blues, another year of trying to get things in place to take that step forward. Talk of despair at this stage is laughable, but so it is familiar. Two home games against Munster and the Cheetahs will offer some redemption for the Blues, and if anything Mulvihill’s words ring louder now more so than ever.