Ah the development pathway. The source of almost all the animosity in Welsh rugby over the last year has come from issues surrounding whether the current professional sides do enough to attract all fans in the country, and that has largely manifested itself in one decision.
Back in 2015 it was announced that the British and Irish Cup would be taken off the Welsh Premiership clubs for the 2015/16 season to allow ‘Premiership Select XVs’ to participate, effectively professional A sides by all but name.
Of course fans of particularly Pontypridd were not happy at all regarding this change as the British and Irish Cup fixtures were by far their biggest of the season, and they were reasonably successful in the competition having got to the semi-finals in recent years. Just don’t mention how many free players were provided by Cardiff Blues for this.
Anyway, I digress, the point is that the aim was to bridge the ever widening gap that is forming between the semi-professional level of the Welsh Premiership and the Guinness Pro12 top of the domestic player development pathway.
Results have been admittedly poor with no wins at all in 2016. Narrow losses home to London Welsh (30-32) and away at Nottingham (19-10) to finish off last season’s campaign, before four losses this season have left the side rooted to the bottom of their BIC pool.
Cardiff A 21-26 London Scottish
Jersey 49-12 Cardiff A
Ulster A 16-10 Cardiff A
Cardiff A 27-30 Ulster A
However, final scores are not the be all and end all at development level and the proof is in the senior rugby pudding as six players, who were either academy members or graduates, have all made their Cardiff Blues debuts in the Pro12 this year having been blooded in the British and Irish Cup first.
Brad Thyer, Corey Domachowski, Seb Davies, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Harri Millard and Rhun Williams have all had some sort of professional league action following a stint with the A team, which now doubt did them more good as a preparation for the senior level, rather than playing in a team of semi-professionals against semi-professionals in an entirely semi-professional setup.
Now players like Domachowski, Lewis-Hughes and Millard are probably a year or two off more regular involvement at senior level, but are capable of stepping up in the event of an injury or form crisis. Until then they will continue to benefit from playing A side rugby and continue their development, rather than returning to the Welsh Premiership full-time.
On the flip side though, after impressive A team performances we have seen Brad Thyer getting plenty of first team minutes this season in the absence of Gethin Jenkins and Rhys Gill, Seb Davies has also been used fairly regularly during the back row injury crisis and not harmed his reputation at all, while Rhun Williams could be one of the biggest talents we’ve seen at the Arms Park.
A try on debut, as well as regular scoring for Cardiff RFC and Cardiff A, have really built on the reputation he built following rave reviews earned in the Wales U20 squad last season. You can see in the way he runs with possession, is comfortable under the high ball and is a deceptively good defender that he could really be the full package at 15, after serving his apprenticeship on the wing.
So, does the development pathway work in it’s current guise? Six debuts in a calendar year says yes. Would it work better with proper professional A teams? I say yes, but who knows. Would it work better by going back to no A teams and the Premiership clubs in the BIC? Absolutely not.
Here’s to another year of Cardiff Blues player development and debuts aplenty. The future is bright, the future is blue and black!