The Anglo-Welsh and British and Irish Cup seasons effectively came to a close on Saturday afternoon as Cardiff Blues were knocked out of the former’s pool stages with defeat to Worcester. With a BIC pool game against London Scottish unlikely to be re-arranged, now is the time to take stock of the ‘development season’ if you will, as the Pro12 returns to action this weekend during the Six Nations.
Although the names of the teams representing the club in both competitions are slightly different, with just Cardiff Blues in the Anglo-Welsh and ‘Cardiff Blues Premiership Select’ in the BIC, the make-up of the squads is roughly the same, as is their purpose, to provide a stepping stone to academy players looking to make the leap from semi-professional to senior professional rugby.
As such results are not the be all and end all for these teams, with performance and gaining experience being the crucial aspect, but that doesn’t take away from what has been a record that doesn’t half make difficult reading for the 2016/17 season.
In the AW Cup the record was; Played 5, Won 0, Lost 5, PF 73, PA 187, Losing BP 0, Try BP 2
In the B&I Cup the record was; Played 4, Won 0, Lost 4, PF 80, PA 176, Losing BP 3, Try BP 0
Overall, including a pre-BIC friendly against our Ospreys counterparts, we secured just one win from 10 games, conceding 363 points at an average of 36 per game, and gaining just five competition points of a possible 50.
Obviously the burning question is ‘why are they so bad?’, well there’s two clear reasons as far as I can see. Firstly, which I’ve written about a lot, there is a clear need for a full-time Cardiff Blues A squad to be setup. The players need to train together regularly, have a specific coaching set-up and play as a group as close to week-in, week-out as possible to develop an understanding.
You can’t expect a squad of thrown together semi-pro players, academy lads and a few senior fringe professionals to form up as an effective unit in a week when the part-time premiership players may have work, the academy members have college and the senior players be training with the first team, so it’s no wonder the team is performing badly.
Going forward we must be looking at providing additional funding to the four professional clubs to formalise the A sides, which in my view should be coming from the Premiership as it’s time for it to split from the pathway.
The gulf in quality is too vast between the top Welsh domestic tier and the Pro12 now, and there is a further split in the Premiership between those teams in it who are looking after themselves and want to win, and those who buy into the development league aspect. It’s best now to leave those clubs to compete as the best non-professional teams in Wales, and send the players through a separate development pathway whereby they can go on loan to the Premiership if need be.
Away from the issues with the pathway, and onto the second reason why results have been so poor this season, which is purely environmental and hopefully won’t be repeated again.
Between the November internationals and right up to the end of the recent Anglo-Welsh Cup games the club has been in the midst of a serious injury crisis. For a squad of between 48 and 50 players, we have seen 25 of these players miss a varying amount of games which has stretched the first team to the limit, never mind the second team.
Add in the expected amount of injuries from the junior tiers of the academy, and the semi-pro players, and it doesn’t bode well. Overall, across the 10 games, the teams in the AW/BIC used 68 different players. An immense amount of players for second string squads, especially when you consider that Danny Wilson had trimmed the amount of Cardiff Blues contracted players just last summer.
To break the 68 down we’ve had to use 20 semi-pro players, as well as 17 seniors, which doesn’t really fit in with the development aspect of the sides. Yes, the BIC team is called the Premiership Select, and it’s good to reward a few players of good form at that level, but what benefit is there to using 27 year-old Jake Thomas, or 32 year-old Gavin Dacey? Great players at their level, but in all honesty they’re not likely to progress.
The positive though is that there were 23 academy players and eight young senior professionals given valuable game time. This is precisely what these competitions are for and it’s a positive that despite all the injuries and heavy losses, that the coaches kept faith in these youngsters and got them the competitive minutes they so desperately need.
It would of course be easier to work with the players after a win, or a positive team performance, but there’s no reason why these players can’t still develop as they are. The coaches have a big task to go through each player’s game to ensure they are learning from experiences, while there’s an onus on the players to be strong mentally after heavy defeats.
Look at Kieron Assiratti recently, or Corey Domachowski before Christmas, as well as the likes of Morgan Sieniawski and Ben Jones. All have turned out impressive individual performances and have made either Pro12 or Wales U20 appearances off the back of them.
The development pathway is in great shape at the Arms Park. Eight Pro12 debuts from academy products in 18 months, most players in the Wales U20 Six Nations squad two years running and during the recent Anglo Welsh Cup games we had the most home-grown players in our squad out of every team in the competition.
Ensuring players continue to make the step up from age grade and development rugby to Pro12 and European standard is the key, and that they are of a quality to improve the squad as a whole, and it is up to the club to put pressure on the relevant authorities to make sure the correct pathways are in place, but as of right now, the future looks bright at Cardiff.