Cardiff Blues snuck past Glasgow Warriors in a 23-19 thriller at the Arms Park on Friday night to make it three wins from three and record their best ever start to a Pro12 season.
Rewind a year, however, and we had just begun a run of seven straight league losses that would see us floundering near the bottom of the table, battling it out with the Italians and Newport Gwent Dragons for 9th place.
So what’s changed in the plush surroundings of the Cardiff Blues training base at the Vale Hotel, and on the plastic pitch of the BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park? Well everything I can suggest comes back to one man, Danny Wilson.
That series of losses last season came in the midst of four away games against each of the Irish Provinces. In that time Wilson used 34 different players, effectively the whole squad with the internationals away at the World Cup, in an attempt to evaluate what he was working with.
Of those 34, 14 are now no longer at the club, along with another seven players that have been in or around the first team shown the door at the end of last season. Wilson was ruthless in his desire to rid the club of deadwood as player acquisition had relied on Welsh Premiership semi-pro players and former Wales internationals for too long.
With those players preparing to leave the next step on putting his mark on the club was to recruit wisely. The main issue was in the forwards who needed beefing up, leading to Rhys Gill (Saracens), Kirby Myhill, George Earle (Both Scarlets) and Nick Williams (Ulster) coming in, as well as exciting backs Steve Shingler (Scarlets) and Matthew Morgan (Bristol) coming in, with Willis Halaholo (Hurricanes) still to arrive.
Far fewer players have arrived than left the club, but players of much higher quality as Wilson moved towards a tighter group with serious competition for places. The playing squad is now around 10 players less than it was, but already paying dividends.
With this smaller squad, players of his choice and a full pre-season to work with the squad, Wilson has really put his stamp on the style of play as the role of Head Coach allows him to do.
Since the departure of David Young in 2011 we’ve not had that solid figure in charge of the rugby department. Gareth Baber and Justin Burnell, as well as Paul John and Dale McIntosh, have had joint-caretaker spells which just haven’t worked, in part due to the temporary nature of their appointments, and the lack of experience in the partnerships.
In the meantime we’ve had the Director of Rugby spells of Phil Davies and Mark Hammett, which haven’t worked due to the wide ranging responsibilities the DoR role brings and, particularly in the case of Davies, minimal time spent on the training pitch.
Now though Danny Wilson’s sole focus is rugby, with Billy Millard taking on the role of General Manager. Wilson doubles as the forwards coach, requiring him to be on the training pitch for every session, really pushing his style of play on the players,
He has filled his coaching staff with men he trusts to buy into that ethos, Matt Sherratt joins as attack coach after working with Wilson at Bristol, he had already brought in Graham Steadman from Newcastle to deal with the defence last summer with Richard Hodges assisting him from the academy set up, and Paul John is in charge of skills coaching, after many successful years as a 7s coach.
We are now seeing the benefits of the greater player-to-coach contact and the higher quality of specialised coaching with the squad playing some excellent rugby. As we saw in the second half of last season, Wilson’s attacking plan is to keep it simple, quick and with width. Sherratt has taken that and just added some minor attacking shapes to create 34 line breaks and 54 defensive players beaten in three games.
John’s focus on skills have led to 35 offloads in the same period, more than we probably produced in three months before Christmas last season. Meanwhile, Steadman has really got to grips with the defence which for so long has been a big weakness. There’s a shape and speed to the defensive line for the majority of the game, and most importantly a desire to make tackles, get stuck into rucks and generally for the players to put their bodies on the line.
The close knit environment and improved coaching has all contributed to some of the best rugby seen at the Arms Park for a few years. At times it’s been a joy to watch and the win over Glasgow on Friday just caps a dream start to the season for the club.
Nobody is under any illusions, however, that there is a long way to go in this season. Immediately after the win last week Danny Wilson was talking about ‘going straight into a tough test’ away at Zebre, where we need ‘the right attitude about tactics, game-plan and mind-set which we didn’t do last year’. There’s much rugby to be played, but the future’s bright in Cardiff.