Cardiff Blues head into the 2017/18 season in a somewhat conflicting state of off-field financial troubles, but with an exciting blend of youth and experience in the on-field squad.
Last year was a disappointing one on the whole, with a four-game unbeaten streak to start the season promptly followed by a run of two wins in nine league games that saw Wales’ Capital Region stranded in the bottom half of the Pro12 once again.
Drastically inconsistent form and an injury list that peaked at 18 players being unavailable for a game against Bath in mid-December were the main contributing factors, although a lack of grunt in the forward pack hampered the side on more than once occasion.
Unfortunately a severe tightening of the belts has lead to the main man being brought in to increase our forward power, Franco van der Merwe, being allowed to look for a new club before even arriving in Cardiff, with London Irish set to sign the South African lock.
Despite that, former Exeter second row Damian Welch has still linked up with the squad this pre-season, as has centre Jack Roberts from Leicester, while Anton Peikrishvili and Sion Bennett have extended their stays into this season.
With experience such as Matthew Rees, Gethin Jenkins, Fa’ao Filise and Nick Williams in the squad guiding the young talents of Corey Domachowksi, Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies and Shane Lewis-Hughes, as well as the attacking talents of Willis Halaholo, Alex Cuthbert and Tom James to call on in the backs, there is a competitive squad preparing to play at Cardiff Arms Park.
There is no question that the newly expanded Pro14 will be the main focus for Danny Wilson and his charges this season, as Champions Cup qualification is once again the highest of priorities with Cardiff preparing to spend a fourth straight season in the second tier Challenge Cup.
Despite there being a greater chance of getting into the Pro14 play-offs now they include six teams, rather than four, it would be a danger to aim too high for Cardiff. Small steps are required on the long road back up to being competitive.
In terms of Europe, it’s a tough judgement call to make for Danny Wilson about how competitive he wants to be in this season’s Challenge Cup.
On one hand there’s memories of being involved in knockout rugby last season, with the quarter-final against Gloucester being a good test for players and a great source of excitement for the fans.
As well as that, this season’s Challenge Cup pool draw has pitted us against Toulouse, Lyon and Sale in a relative group of death for the second tier tournament. In another year this could be a Champions Cup pool, and with ambitions of qualifying for the big time again still being harboured it could almost be seen as a trial run.
However, with thoughts of that injury crisis experienced last year still fresh in everyone’s minds, the temptation to rotate the squad may prove too much for Wilson as he tries to offer as many players a rest as possible. With certainly Sale and likely the French sides to put weakened sides out, this may help make up the mind of the Cardiff coach.
It’s possible that a final decision on whether to really go for the Challenge Cup will be made closer to the time as balancing the need for squad rotation with maintaining any momentum is not something that can be predicted.
Wilson will certainly have in his mind that the first two rounds of pool games come between two Welsh derbies, while the third and fourth rounds in December precede the busy festive period.
There is also another way to measure success this season, though. The financial restrictions the club are working under at the moment mean there is been a significant shift in focus from the Cardiff Blues hierarchy, from looking to sign senior player, to developing youth from within the region, and beyond.
The Wales U20 squad at the Junior World Championship contained 11 Cardiff Blues youngsters, and it’s these players that the long-term plan is based around, as well as the likes of Seb Davies, Dillon Lewis, Tomos Williams. and Rhun Williams who were called up to the senior Wales setup, and Corey Domachowski, Brad Thyer, Jarrod Evans and Garyn Smith who have made their Celtic League debuts in the last two seasons.
Every minute these players get on the pitch this season is a step towards making it a success, as the club builds to life with a new stadium in around three years time.
In the short-term Champions Cup qualification would be a huge boost, but there’s an eye on the long game in Cardiff as the only Welsh side to win a European competition looks to rise to the Northern hemisphere’s highest echelon again.