Updated: Apr 2, 2021
The five-week campaign to secure third place in our Conference got underway on Saturday night. One had sensed in Toby Booth's pre match press conference that he seemed surprisingly nervous about this game, which on paper, against a severely depleted Zebre teamed, looked by far the easiest of our remaining fixtures.
When the team selection was unveiled and we saw the weather outlook, this nervousness began to look well placed. Going into the match with only one jackal and only one line-out forward in the back five of the pack, along with the absence of the experienced Myler, who gives some shape to our attacking game, was probably the worst selection we have had to field since the start of the season.
So on the back of that analysis, a win was a really great result. Despite all the weaknesses we kept going to the end, and whilst it is undeniable Rhys Webb has lost some of the explosive pace of his younger days, he has considerably improved his game management skills, and was pivotal to obtaining that victory, as he was out in Connacht.
It is hard though to see how the two most critical aspects of the game that led to such a poor performance can be resolved without different selection policies. It is fair to say that when our line out goes well, we are a difficult side to beat. If teams take away our line out, our attack becomes far more limited. It would be interesting to find out who called our line outs in the absence of Beard. It should not have taken the intellect of Albert Einstein to appreciate that using Ashley Cracknell and Cross as line out targets, at any level, will equate to lost line outs. The second half saw some adjustments, no doubt ordered by the coaches at half time, with Rhys Davies becoming the primary target and the excellent Will Griffiths entering the fray albeit a little on the late side.
It seems blindingly obvious that for this team to function it is going to need more credible line out forwards in the selection. Griffiths' return will obviously improve matters, but if Bradley Davies is not going to return at any point, then young James Fender will have to step up to the plate.
The second area of huge concern was the breakdown. We have become used to a back five of the pack, loaded with internationals, winning collisions. On Saturday we had a reserve back five that were completely ineffective in this aspect. We could therefore create no continuity or flow, even on the limited occasions we did secure a set piece ball.
This was not a young selection. The average age of the pack was 27 and the average age of the backs was 26. It was a poor selection even taking account we are down to the bare bones. Nobody expects us to come back with anything from Ulster, so it may be the ideal time to take a look at a couple of players in key positions that might help us improve for the two games left that really matter, the Dragons and Glasgow. The lack of carrying explosion in the back row can be partially corrected by the return of Griffiths, but jackallers are in short supply, and perhaps Dewi Lake could be used from the flank in this role.
Third place in the Conference remains there for the taking, but on the evidence of Saturday night and the quality available to us for these games, it is not going to be achieved easily without adapting the selection and performance we saw against Zebre on Saturday night.
To end on a positive note it was a great sight for all of us to see Keelan Giles explode chasing a kick in the final minute. Let's hope we see more of him in the run in.