Another season came and another season has gone as we bade farewell to the 2015/16 campaign with a win in Edinburgh last weekend. It’s been a long old slog of a year that at one point seemed like it would be a total disaster but, with full credit to head coach Danny Wilson, his coaching staff and the players, they have turned it around both on the pitch and off of it.
When searching for a cliché to define this year it’s been tough to be honest. ‘A tale of two halves’ doesn’t quite define it as despite a marked improvement from Christmas onwards there has still been setbacks, while ‘so close yet so far’ belies the positives that should be taken overall. In the end I’ve settled on ‘the best is yet to come’ as although the finish to the season was a good one, I truly believe we have the makings of an excellent side here.
A Promising Start
We start the season review by casting our minds back to the back end of 2014/15. I would say that as that campaign drew to a close we were at our lowest point as the Cardiff Blues. 10th place in the Pro12, bottom of all the Welsh sides, closer to the Italian teams than the Champions Cup and on the hunt for our fifth different coaching setup in as many years.
It wasn’t until the early June that confirmation came through of who would be heading up that coaching team when Bristol forwards coach Danny Wilson was officially announced Head Coach, importantly not Director of Rugby. With an impressive CV of coaching at Cardiff RFC, Wales U20, Llanelli, Newport and Bristol he had the experience of professional rugby, but never in a leadership capacity. A calculated risk you might say, but it was a fresh start.
Wilson retained Paul John as his attack coach, while bringing in rugby league legend Graham Steadman as his defence coach from Newcastle Falcons, supported by development pathway manager Richard Hodges. A fairly inexperienced set up in coaching terms but plenty of rugby knowledge.
Joining the new coaching staff were new player signings in American internationals Blaine Scully and Cameron Dolan, from Leicester and Northmaption respectively, Rey Lee-Lo from Super Rugby’s Hurricanes and an old face in post-2003 club top try scorer Tom James, who returned from Exeter Chiefs. Unfortunately only TJ would be instantly available while the others were off at the Rugby World Cup.
Pre-season came around at the end of August with fixtures away to Wilson’s old side Bristol and home to next door neighbours Newport. Across the two games 40 players were used as players were evaluated and given game time to impress, while a number of different partnerships were tested in key areas such as half-back, and the back row. Of the players used 11 were senior academy members, including 17 year old Owen Lane at centre.
High scoring encounters of a 26-31 win in Bristol and a 28-35 loss to Newport were certainly entertaining, but results aren’t really the important part of pre-season and the number of players used, specifically youngsters, was encouraging and would be a sign of things to come. With both games done and the Rugby World Cup ready to kick-off, the Pro12 got off to an understated start.
It took all of 23 minutes of Danny Wison’s first game in charge at the Arms Park to break down traditional league whipping boys Zebre, but once the gates were open it was easy for the tries to follow. In the end it became a record breaking 61-13 win as 11 tries, the most by a Cardiff Blues side, were run in with Josh Navidi, Aled Summerhill and Tom James bagging braces, while Josh Turnbull and Rhys Patchell claimed hat-tricks.
An early season confidence booster before being forced onto the road by the World Cup, little did we know that a large downhill slope was around the corner…