A mid-season break in the end of year review for the Pro12 to allow the cup competitions to have their analysis. Overall it was a disappointing campaign results wise in the European and domestic cups but they were both tinged with optimism as there were plenty of indicators to show better things are on the way.
Starting at home and the first season of the Cardiff A team representing the club in the British and Irish Cup. The idea was that the team would be made up of young players and Premiership players from the Rags and Pontypridd, but wisely the management used it as a majority young players, a few fringe senior players and only a very small minority Ponty players to make up the numbers and keep the Valleys a tiny bit happy.
Unfortunately results did not go as expected and it was a tough learning curve for the new side. The group stages started with a home game against Nottingham which was drawn 20-20 in seriously windy conditions, before a trip to Old Deer Park was ruined by an Olly Barkley inspired London Welsh mounting a very late comeback. The December double header saw us lose at home to Cornish Pirates before gaining a first win in the return game. Another agonising loss to London Welsh ended any qualification hopes, meaning the final loss to Nottingham was a dead rubber.
I wrote immediately after the BIC campaign finished that, although many Pontypridd fans would point to the results as a means to mock the decision of taking their participation in the competition away, the development aspect of the whole exercise was the most important thing. It gives a chance for current academy players to experience a stepping stone between the Premiership and Pro12, while the younger senior players are given a chance to show what they can do and if they deserve a shot in the first team.
That point has been proved true as I sit here looking back on the season as a whole. We have seen a number of youth players such as Dillon and Ethan Lewis, Tomos Williams and Brad Thyer really make an impact on the first team having played in the BIC while a number of others have been deemed not good enough by Danny Wilson and management on the back of A team performances, Joe Jones, Elis Wyn Benham and Jordan Viggers amongst others. Finally, players on the periphery of the first team, Owen Jenkins, Miles Normandale and Jevon Groves to name a few, have been released after failing to impress in this environment.
It has been confirmed that the BIC will stay with professional club A sides next season, a move that will see the next generation of academy players given a chance as well as appearing in the LV Cup. With these players training together more often, and Cardiff RFC serving as a more full-time yet unofficial A side to facilitate this, hopefully the results will come next season to compliment the player development.
Of course the ultimate goal is to mould these players into European rugby winners in the Cardiff blue shirt, and we could certainly do with a few more of them! This season’s campaign was never going to be easy from the moment the draw was made. Italian qualifiers Calvisano were always to be the group whipping boys, but aside from that the big boys of the Top 14, Montpellier, and the Aviva Premiership, Harlequins were going to prove extremely tricky.
The pool kicked off with a straight forward hammering of Calvisano, 9-50, over in Italy, but it meant little as we were brought back down to earth by Harlequins the next week by 20-32 at the Arms Park. The Italian result aside it was a time when we were in the midst of our early season losing run, but still it was a disappointment to be so easily brushed aside by a distinctly second string Quins outfit.
Fortunately, by the time the December European double header came around we were back in a bit of form, and we would definitely need it to take on Montpellier twice in a week. That form though would result in a performance for the ages, a really special night under the lights at CAP. The 37-27 scoreline saw a bonus point victory which went down as a real turning point of the season, giving us the belief and confidence to really kick on. Unfortunately it was not quite to be repeated the following week when an 80th minute converted try, aided by some dodgy English refereeing, meant we went down by a point.
Six points from the two games though put us in a good position as we travelled to London to give Harlequins the game they missed out on in November, and they nearly avoided it again when we completely failed to show up for the first half. However, from 28-0 down at the break we won the second half 6-26 to get within a single point of a losing bonus point. It left us needing an unholy amount of fixtures to go our way after a 12-try destruction of Calvisano but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.
In the end we were left wondering what could have been if we’d been in form against Harlequins in November, or if we could have got over the line in either the away loss to them or in Montpellier. What it did leave though was that sense of faith from the fans to the players and the players in themselves. It was the catalyst for a post-Christmas Pro12 resurgence and saw us so close to Champions Cup qualification.
At one point towards the end of last season I believed that next season’s Challenge Cup should be a chance to rest key players for our Pro12 campaign, but Cardiff is an historically successful European Cup. We hark back to 2010 all the time so, second tier competition or not, we should put our minds to winning it. If I play as I know we can, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. Come on Cardiff!!