It’s fair to say that in the 16 or so months that Danny Wilson has been in charge at the Cardiff Arms Park there has been a large overhaul of the squad. Twenty-one players have left and just nine have arrived as the Head Coach affects his three year plan to transform the club.
To quote Cardiff Blues CEO Richard Holland from November last year, “we want less quantity and more quality. Danny has identified that we have got too many players in the system.” As such the squad was hoped to be trimmed from well over 50 to around the 40 mark, ensuring a better standard of rugby on the training paddock as well as more money available for improved signings.
In the end we finished up with a senior squad of around 38, plus eight senior academy players. Early season this approach had seemed to work well. After a pre-season spent with the smaller group the team went on a run of four victories from four to sit comfortably in the Pro12 play-off spots and find themselves in a far better position to a year previously when a seven-game losing streak was suffered.
That unbeaten run, where we dispatched of Edinburgh, Munster, Glasgow and Zebre, followed by two losses to Leinster and Ospreys took up just 27 players across the six games. When you consider that two of those players appeared as replacement on a solitary occasion each, and a further two players have just two substitute appearances to their name, it’s an indication of how settled the team was.
Yet settled also means restricted. Restricted in the sense that there is only a small group of players being used, and being worked very hard. There’s 15 players who appeared in all six of those games in consecutive weeks, others only missing one or two matches.
That is part of the explanation for why the start of the season was such a success, but it could also go some way to explaining the dramatic drop in form from four straight wins to back-to-back Pro12 losses. Tired players, predictable game plans and lack of match fit non-playing squad members all had a detrimental affect on on-field affairs.
How does this link to Danny Wilson’s strategy of cutting down the squad size? Well, because the number of players available is almost at the bare minimum level, the team must be well managed. Individuals cannot be over-played, others can’t be under-used and left to rot. The matchday 23 must be regularly rotated to allow all players exposure to matches and rest in equal measure to ensure being fresh and reduce injury risk.
A study done for European football governing body UEFA found a majority of injuries over a seven year period took place in a game situation. Playing in a lot of games increases that risk again, which was exactly what those players who were featuring for six consecutive weeks at the start of the season had to contend with.
When you have players like George Earle and his dodgy ankle, Tom James with a similar foot issue, Gethin Jenkins’ groins, Josh Navidi’s neck and basically all of Nick Williams’ body, management is key, and yet all except Gethin and James have been forced to sit out for a few weeks with those injuries.
This is where the second downside of a smaller squad kicks in as, although we haven’t suffered from a massive amount of injuries, the impact of them is amplified. There is more strength in depth yes, but there isn’t actually any depth.
The Pro12 swings back into action this weekend after an Autumn International break and as such the start of the festive season is signalled with huge Welsh derbies alongside a European double header with Bath facing the Welsh capital side, yet in Cardiff there are serious concerns over certain positions.
In the back row both Nick Williams and Josh Navidi have been struck down with ongoing injuries which have left us with no recognised senior number eights. As such there are flankers and second rows being used to fill in which, in turn, is leaving those positions somewhat short on the ground, especially with Earle’s injury affecting lock.
Out of the forwards there are certainly issues with the half-backs. Scrum half Lewis Jones is out for a lengthy period after knee surgery, leaving just Lloyd Williams in the squad with more than six starts. Meanwhile at fly half a nasty broken jaw suffered by Jarrod Evans leaves just Gareth Anscombe and Steve Shingler as 10s in the squad that aren’t in college. Although these aren’t related to over-playing of the injured players, it’s a stark remember of the general lack of squad depth.
Elsewhere in the squad I can’t help but feel that each front row position, as well as in the back three, we are always just an injury away from a mini-crisis and as such it goes to re-enforce the original point that squad management is key when operating with a reduced playing staff.
So, while I agree with the principle of Danny Wilson’s quality over quantity squad reduction, it’s important that lessons are learnt from the squad mis-management of this season so far to ensure that we avoid any serious injury crisis. The early season form showed how well this team can play, it would be a shame to see that wasted due to perfectly avoidable situations. Come on Cardiff!!!