The first weekend of the European Champions Cup saw some interesting ties take place, but there was one team, Cardiff Rugby, that was sadly unable to field the majority of their first-choice players for this round of fixtures, due to the Omicron outbreak in South Africa coming as they were in the country for a couple of United Rugby Championship matches. As a result, they were forced to put together a matchday squad of academy talents, semi-professional players, and anyone who hadn’t been a part of the travelling party. As if this wasn’t enough for them to deal with, the visitors to Cardiff Arms Park were defending champions Stade Toulousain, who would be tough to beat even with the normal squad available to the Welsh region.
This tactical analysis will look at Cardiff’s first and second half performances, picking out the positives in their play, and the areas where their inexperience led to mistakes being made. The analysis will also focus on Toulouse’s attacking play, showing how they started slowly but quickly got into the game, and how small changes in their play helped them to take more control.
Tighthead prop Will Davies-King and experienced back Dan Fish were the only players from the matchday squad in Cardiff’s last game, against rivals Dragons, to feature in this clash. The more well-known players given starts were lock Seb Davies, flanker Ellis Jenkins (who captained the side), fellow back rower James Botham, scrum-half Tomos Williams and centres Willis Halaholo and Josh Adams (the latter of whom usually plays as a winger). Iestyn Harris played at hooker, Jason Tovey came in at fly-half, and Theo Cabango, brother of Swansea City and Wales centre-back Ben, was handed a place in the XV on the opposite wing to Fish.
Toulouse, meanwhile, named several high-profile players in their XV. France loosehead prop Cyril Baille started in the front row, whilst Francois Cros and Anthony Jelonch featured as part of a back row with plenty of attacking quality. France’s star half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack were two players that Cardiff would need to keep a very close eye on, given the creative threat they pose, whilst Arthur Bonneval and Matthis Lebel provided the pace in the wide channels. The vastly experienced Maxime Medard started at full-back, tasked with ensuring that Toulouse’s defence was as watertight as possible.
Cardif Rugby’s first half
The first half proved to be difficult for Cardiff Rugby, as they looked to find a way into the game against clearly better opposition. However, the home team deserve credit for their overall attitude, as they played some good rugby and clearly wanted to be on the front foot, aiming to keep Toulouse as far away from their try line as possible.
Toulouse in the early stages didn’t give themselves much space to move the ball around in, with the yellow box demonstrating how all three of Romain Ntamack’s passing options here were close by him. Whilst this may have been part of Toulouse’s initial game plan, it actually benefitted Cardiff’s players more, as they were defensively quick and organised, and were able to keep making big tackles every time Toulouse ran into them. On this occasion, Ntamack found Australian back rower Emmanuel Meafou, who was brought down by the combined effort of Iestyn Harris and Ellis Jenkins as soon as he had taken his first step. Therefore, the teamwork that Cardiff had ingrained in them made it hard for Toulouse, and meant that, whilst the visitors had the majority of possession, the home side stayed in the game.
However, whilst they did win penalties from this hard work in defence, Cardiff were never able to make the most of them, with the one earnt here allowing Seb Davies to run forwards and try to gain ground, but he held onto the ball once tackled and gave it back to Toulouse through another penalty. This is where the home side needed to be smarter, but that will come as some of these players gain more experience of first team matches.
However, Cardiff’s eagerness and desire to keep Toulouse back did hurt them in the closing stages of the first half, with this image showing the French giants’ second try of the game, scored by New Zealand-born centre Pita Akhi. Theo Cabango, in the blue circle, had come out to meet Akhi early, but was simply knocked to the ground as a result of the power that the centre has. The other issue that Cardiff had was that, in coming out to meet his opponent, Cabango had left a gap open behind him, allowing Akhi to run through between Harris and Davies with no tackle attempt made on him. It was unfortunate for Cardiff, but these were the moments when the difference in experience between the two squads was illustrated.
Cardiff Rugby’s second half
In the second half, Cardiff Rugby should be commended for not changing their attitude and playing more defensively, as some teams would have done in their position.
They instead knew that Toulouse were making mistakes with the ball, and were not as slick as we have become used to seeing them be, so kept the pressure on them as much as possible. As a result, there were chances for them to make interceptions and run towards the French side’s try line, with Jenkins, who was another to have a really good game, getting his reward here when Toulouse centre Sofiane Guitoune threw a poor pass which sat up nicely for the Cardiff captain to catch.
Jenkins almost made it to the try line from this chance, but didn’t have enough support from his teammates, meaning that Toulouse were able to get back and set up behind the ball. Therefore, attacking as a unit and not individually is another thing that the home side can work on as a coaching point ahead of their next game, as it will help them to turn these opportunities into points and punish opponents’ errors.
The key point to make though, is that, even with the scoreline suggesting that the game was beyond them, Cardiff’s performance levels never let up. A lot of play after half-time took place in the middle of the pitch, with both sides using phases of play to make small gains and force their opponents back towards their own try line. This image shows Tomos Williams setting James Botham up to run into the defence and try to create a gap, and the fact that there was a period of end-to-end rugby showed how both teams matched each other in attacking and defensive quality, making this a good game to watch for the neutral. However, whilst there were clear positives in Cardiff’s performance, their penalty concession count was what kept them back, so this is another thing that they will need to address before their next game.
Toulouse’s attacking tactics
Given that Toulouse are currently second in the Top 14, behind Bordeaux-Begles, and had the biggest points difference in the division so far, they were surprisingly slow at the beginning of this match, making plenty of mistakes that we haven’t tended to associate with them.
This image shows Ntamack with the ball, but his pass to Arthur Bonneval was clearly forwards and Cardiff won a cheap penalty. We have already looked at how Cardiff put pressure on the defending champions, but it did look as if Toulouse were finding it difficult to establish themselves against their inexperienced opponents. We expected them to dominate the game and score plenty of points, but it was errors like this that prevented them from taking control earlier than they did. This wasn’t the only example of their untidiness, as they also made a few loose passes which lost them ground, so there was definite room for them to improve these small details as the game went on.
This did get better as the game went on, and it was largely down to Antoine Dupont, who was undoubtedly the best player on the field across both teams. Toulouse appeared to be sparked into life by Cardiff scoring their only try of the game through Wales and former Worcester Warriors star Josh Adams, who had taken advantage of some poor defending to break through and give his region the lead. However, once Dupont began to find spaces and make his usual darting runs, Toulouse looked more confident and played like defending champions.
A key element of the French team’s tactics is to get Dupont running forwards once he has possession at set-pieces, and this happened a few times in the game, with each leading to a try or a try-scoring opportunity. Here, he has spotted the gap between Tomos Williams and Jason Tovey, but the difference between this and Ellis Jenkins’ second half break was that Dupont had support from players like Ntamack, who received the offload from Dupont and set up Anthony Jelonch to score under the posts at the end of this attack. Therefore, the individual vision of Dupont was a key factor in Toulouse pulling away from Cardiff on the scoreboard.
We also mentioned in the first section that Toulouse were playing quite narrowly when in possession, which was giving Cardiff time to set up defensively and prevent the away side from making huge advances up the pitch. However, in the second half, the French side were more spread out and played longer passes, making it harder for Cardiff to get across and block the spaces off. Here, Francois Cros has found Jelonch with his pass, and there is an extra player on the other side of the pitch if required, helping Toulouse to make the most of this opportunity. Therefore, these small changes were another reason that the defending champions were able to win the game by such a large scoreline, despite Cardiff putting up a good fight to the end.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has shown how Cardiff Rugby played well, and deserve a lot of praise for the way their players approached the game. Undoubtedly, they will have better days, especially given the experience that these players will have now gained, but they stayed in the game and made Toulouse think, and that is the key positive for them. Toulouse, meanwhile, will be disappointed with the way they started the game, and will know that they can’t afford to make so many simple mistakes against other teams if they want to defend their title. However, the important thing for them was getting the win and shaking off their apparent rustiness, which this game will have done for them, so they will hopefully now play better in the next round of European matches this weekend.
Cardiff’s next game sees them travel to the Twickenham Stoop on Saturday, where they will face a tricky tie against English Premiership champions Harlequins in their next Champions Cup match. Toulouse, meanwhile, will also face English opposition, as they are back at home and will host Wasps on Sunday.