When we look back on the 2016/17 season, as Cardiff Blues fans, the overwhelming emotions will be ones of frustration and disappointment. Injuries, missed opportunities for bonus points and disappointing performances have been aplenty, but amongst it all there is a glimmer of hope.
Off the field it’s been a whirlwind of a few weeks, with the future of the club swinging from being fully WRU owned, to no Union ownership at all. In the meantime the re-building of Cardiff Arms Park is waiting in the wings, varying from very close to taking place, to nowhere near being agreed, depending on which party you ask.
Without the WRU there is very likely to be a vast financial shortfall at the Cardiff Blues over the next few years while the redevelopment lease is agreed with Cardiff Athletic Club, the ground’s owners, and then when the team will have to play on the road for two or three seasons during the building work.
However, without the WRU there is also a very bright outlook when the new stadium, which will double as a concert venue, is built and the revenue starts coming into the club from that and surrounding commercial developments. As an independent organisation the benefits will be felt greater than if Union control was still in place.
This is where the positives come in from this season, and where we need to be looking over the next few years to set the basis for improvement once the new stadium is built.
Injury frustrations have been massive at Cardiff this season. In Pro12 and European games over December and January, head coach Danny Wilson had to contend with injury lists of at least 11 players each week, with a quarter of the squad stuck in the treatment room throughout that period.
Those injuries laid bare the distinct lack of squad depth that we suffer from, as we very quickly were dipping into the pool of players made up from recent graduates to the senior squad, and senior academy members.
Corey Domachowski, Brad Thyer, Ethan Lewis, Kieron Assiratti, Seb Davies, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Tomos Williams, Garyn Smith, Aled Summerhill and Rhun Williams have all been utilised in either the Pro12 or Challenge Cup despite being 23 years old or younger.
Jarrod Evans and Dillon Lewis also fit that age category and would have been involved had they not been caught up in the injury issues themselves, and with none of the players showing any obvious signs that they were not cut out for the top level of club rugby, there’s positive signs for the future.
With Exeter Chiefs winning the Aviva Premiership and Scarlets winning the Pro12 there are good examples to follow in terms of creating a winning side and a team culture, something Cardiff now have a great chance to develop.
Financial cuts will see players leave, but with foreign and bit-part senior players at the top of the departure lists, young players will get a chance at Pro12 playing minutes that many clubs are not in a position to offer.
The players listed above, as well as a number of exciting young Cardiff Blues on Wales U20 duty at this summer’s Junior World Championship, and even younger than that at U18, are the most exciting batch of homegrown products we’ve seen in many years.
If they can take advantage of the experience they will gain while the belts are tightened for re-building work, then the club will be ready to enter the new stadium with the basis of a squad sorted. A group of talented home grown players, marshalled by a few senior club players and Wales internationals.
Money brought in by the new stadium can add a sprinkling of foreign class, as well as a few Welsh players playing abroad, and suddenly the full squad is ready to compete, underpinned by the team culture created by the group of players being brought through in the lean years.
Of course, everything that could happen after the stadium is built is based on hope, but there is expectation that this crop of young talent can set Cardiff Blues up for a return to the top table of European rugby and a challenge in the Pro12 play-offs.
There is now a responsibility upon the coaching staff, and the players themselves, to reach that full potential and develop that club culture. If that can be pulled off, and the off-field aspects fall into place over the next few years, then there’s no reason that Cardiff Blues can’t be achieving what Exeter and Scarlets have this season.