photo (2)Almost 48 hours after the official unveiling of the new Cardiff Arms pitch I’ve finally made it back ‘up North’ after a brief overnighter in the Welsh capital. This weekend I was fortunate enough to be chauffeured round so whilst sobering up in the bank holiday traffic I had plenty of time to contemplate both teams progress during the off-season, Cardiff and the Blues new artificial pitch.

The weekend began much like it ended. a long drive in bank holiday traffic before we made it to the hotel to drop off our bags and head straight into the city centre. We arrived a few hours before kick-off to have another fantastic meal at Italian restaurant Giovanni’s. (If you’re ever down in Cardiff be sure to drop in for a meal, I can highly recommend their Carpaccio).

photoHaving suitably stuffed our faces and feeling at least a few pounds heavier and a little merrier we ambled up towards the Arms Park under the impressive shadow of the Millenium Stadium. With the stadium being just a couple of minutes walk from the city centre you get a real taste of the pre-match atmosphere as you notice the number of fans in rugby shirts increase in every bar on the way.

The magnificent thing about the Arms Park is the way the Millenium has been built around it. This means that to get into the stadiums South Stand you actually have to walk through the corridors of the Millenium Stadium and then drop back into the Arms Park. Whilst walking through I took a sneaky peak inside the Millenium, it’s fair to say the (lack of) pitch there is in stark contrast to the magnificent new lush green (and blue) 4G that has been installed at the Arms Park.

photo (1)Upon walking into the Arms Park you get the feel of a genuine old school club house with bags of atmosphere and a more than welcoming set of fans. In the corridor under the Millenium Sam Warburton and a number of the other Cardiff stars not featuring in the game were sat signing autographs for fans with a queue stretching right the way along the South stand.

Just opposite was the stands main bar which felt just like walking into your local. Warm and inviting with a great atmosphere created by the fans inside. (In how many other sports can 5 people walk into a bar full of opposition fans and not feel even slightly concerned about tempers flaring?). The Cardiff fans inside the bar were a friendly and welcoming bunch happy to throw around plenty of banter and point us in the right direction.

Walking out into the main stand I was delighted to see that Cardiff’s brand new 4G pitch was looking perfectly lush and green much unlike the mud bath I witnessed when I ventured down for the Blues Heineken Cup game with Sale earlier this year. In January we could barely tell the two teams apart after 20 minutes. On Friday however, despite the rain, there were no such issues.

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A Game of Two Halves

As a Sale fan I was left with some very mixed emotions after the final whistle as the ago old cliche of ‘a game of two halves’ couldn’t have rung truer. Sale got off to the perfect start with Henry Thomas scoring a try within the first couple of minutes off the back of a driving maul.Both teams traded penalties before Sam James went over to score a second try after some impressive work by Tuitupou and Seymour. The half eventually finished 17 – 9 after a couple more penalties by the Blues.

Cardiff sent out nearly an entirely new side for the second half which clearly paid off in the end. It turned out to be a great 40 minutes if your surname was Williams with Owen, Lloyd & Tom all going over. A Gaskell try was little consolation for Sale as Hewitt and Owen Williams finished off the scoring to end the game at 45 – 24 to Cardiff Blues.

Sale Sharks

Although Sale’s second half capitulation was an all to familiar sight after the last few seasons I do feel there are a number of positives the club can take forward into the new season. Firstly, although not completely dominant the pack looks to have a lot more dog about it with the likes of Mills, Patterson and Kulemin all impressing. Their added weight along with the new scrum engagement calls saw Sale compete in the scrum and looks a positive step forward from last season.

Sale completely dominated the first half in a way I haven’t really seen in the last 12 months. The work of Mike Forshaw on the defence has also been clear for all to see in all of the pre-season games bar Friday’s second half. This may be partly down to the number of enforced changes as at one stage we had two scrum halves and two fly halves on the pitch due to lack of replacements.

Nick Macleod’s kicking was top notch whilst Tom Arscott continued to impress in attack. Mark Cueto also looks like a player re-born showing pace and determination throughout. Joe Ford also looks to have an excellent boot whilst Gaskell seems to have finally found his place at 8. This is not to say there aren’t issues.

The second half capitulation was disappointing to say the least with the team looking a shade of the one that appeared in the first half. To be fair a few dodgy refereeing decisions and the lack of positional replacements clearly affected the balance of play but were not enough to justify conceding 5 tries whilst only scoring 1. Speaking to captain Dan Braid at the end I got the impression that although the team were disappointed they felt there’s plenty of positives to take forward into the new season and left me feeling somewhat more positive than I had at the final whistle.

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Cardiff Blues

It would be pretty easy to just flip the analysis of Sale for Cardiff here. A poor first half were the team looked a little disjointed came out rejuvenated after wholesale changes at half time. A lack of dog up front in the first half was partly masked by some impressive running from the backs but the forwards replacements helped give the team front foot ball in the second half and assert their dominance on the game.

Despite missing several key players like Jenkins, Cuthbert, Halfpenny and Warburton the second half performance was nothing short of impressive. The Blues kept Sale camped in their own half for much of the 40 minutes with some exciting running from the backs providing a constant threat throughout.

Josh Navidi looks a truly fantastic talent making tackles throughout and being a general nuisance at the breakdown. Harry Robinson looks a constant menace in attack able to pick holes in the opposition defence. The most impressive performance however came from Rhys Patchell who completely turned the game on its head. His willingness to stand flat and run at the line whilst his ingenuity in attack was second to none. Clever little chips over the Sale defence opened up space for the likes of Robinson and Williams to run at the line.

The 4G Pitch

After witnessing the match and then having the opportunity to walk out onto the pitch at the end I can safely say I think Cardiff have definitely made the right choice in laying the artificial turf. Despite having had a full game played on it in wet soggy conditions the pitch still looked in pristine condition at the end unlike in January. From the stand it didn’t appear to impact on the game with scrums holding up and play running as (5)The only notable difference I could see was that the ball seemed to bounce slightly more on the turf often resulting in kicks travelling further then either team expected. Walking out at the end the pitch felt very similar to normal turf, the only noticeable difference under foot was a slight added springiness. The general opinion from fans is that it is a really positive move and should hopefully help ensure the Arms Park is a fantastic rugby venue for years to come.

photo (3)All in all it was a truly fantastic way to spend an evening, Cardiff is just about my favourite city in the world to watch a game of rugby whilst the Arms Park is a truly classic rugby venue with bags of character and charm. The Cardiff fans are a friendly and welcoming bunch whilst Giovanni’s in the city centre is a truly fantastic Italian.

The game itself showed that Cardiff look set to have a strong season ahead, especially once the Lions return to the side. Patchell looks like he could be the future of the Welsh national side whilst Navidi is sure to be a key player in the future. if the team can remain relatively injury free I can see this being a big year for Cardiff.

Whilst Sale had a very mixed game the pre-season matches so far have shown a vast improvement in the players commitment and a unity in defence I haven’t witnessed in a number of seasons. There seems to be leaders throughout the team and a renewed energy amongst the players. Although I still have my concerns about the lack of propping options I can definitely see this season being much more positive than last.

I’m also a huge fan of the new 4G pitches and can genuinely see them being used across the game in future years. The pitches ability to withstand a barrage of terrible weather and still remain in perfect condition seems ideal given the number of mud baths I’ve witnessed across the Northern Hemisphere in seasons-gone-by. The 4G also seems to play very similar to a grass pitch so shouldn’t affect teams unnecessarily.