Last weekend saw the British and Irish Cup return to action for the 2017/18 season as pool games across the country began in earnest, including for the four Welsh ‘Premiership Select XVs’.
Unfortunately things did not go to plan for the sides from our country as all four teams fell to defeat in round one, with only Dragons and Scarlets able to pick up losing bonus points in the process.
The issue is that a set of results like these has not been uncommon for the Premiership Select XVs since their inception in 2015, and now questions are being asked about why that is, and what the future holds for this step in the development pathway.
Out of a possible 53 matches played by the four sides since the beginning of the 2015/16 season there has been just 15 wins and one draw, with only Scarlets making it through the pool stage on one occasion, losing heavily to Ealing in the quarter-final.
However, the counter-argument to the poor results has, for the last two seasons, been the fact that it is a valuable link to bridge the ever-widening gap between the semi-professional Premiership and professional Pro14.
Corey Domachowski, Brad Thyer, Ethan Lewis, Dillon Lewis, Kieron Assiratti, Seb Davies, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Garyn Smith and Aled Summerhill have all appeared in the British and Irish Cup over the last two seasons before going on to make a strong impression on the first team.
Across the four professional sides there were 16 members of last season’s Wales U20 squad on show last weekend, as well as five players who toured South Africa with Wales U18s over the summer.
The captain of that U20s side over the 2017 U20 Six Nations and Junior World Championship, Will Jones, lead the Ospreys against Munster A, and admitted “it is a step up from the Premiership, the speed is different and Munster were very well drilled and they certainly knew what they were doing.”
So we know it works as a step in the pathway generally, but looking at the Cardiff Blues specific circumstances, and this is where I start to wonder if the Premiership Select XV is really working for us.
Obviously it is now very well documented that the financial issues at the club have resulted in a change of tact away from big money signings and towards properly focusing on developing our own players.
This means that those players listed above are now seen very much as first team players, whereas perhaps in different monetary circumstances they would still be spending time in the development phase of their careers around the BIC level.
As a result only nine of the Cardiff Blues Premiership Select matchday 23 were Cardiff Blues contracted professionals, with two of them, in Dan Fish and Sion Bennett, being established first team players just gaining match fitness in this competition.
The rest of the squad were made up of semi-professionals at Cardiff, Pontypridd and Merthyr, giving the squad that Barbarian flavour which is not ideal against serious A team Irish outfits, and English Championship sides, some of whom are fully professional.
Centre Harri Millard, who played for the Premiership Select on Saturday at Sardis Road, summed up the main issue perfectly in a post-match interview that appeared on the official club website, “of course, Bristol are a quality outfit, and as a group we’ve only been able to train twice before coming out here today to play.”
Twice. Just two training sessions for a squad that will have players who have never met each other, and a coaching team that has never worked together, to get organised enough to beat fully professional Bristol. A nigh on impossible task no matter what sort of side the West Country outfit send over the bridge.
It is for this reason that Cardiff Blues Premiership Select is doomed to fail results-wise before it’s even started, and why the whole exercise is becoming futile within our development pathway.
There is no sign of the money returning in the next three or four years to have a squad deep enough to staff the majority of a second team, therefore we will rely on the Premiership Barbarian feel until such a time when the finances are back on their feet.
This all begs the question ‘what do our young players stand to gain from this experience?’. Is two training sessions with coaches they may never have worked under, alongside semi-professional players they’ve never met, and then going out to get spanked on a Saturday going to further their development? The jury is increasingly out.
What is the answer then? Well in my view there are two options; set up proper professional A teams, or send the British and Irish Cup back to the Premiership clubs.
Looking at the A team idea first, and it would take a decent increase in funding from the Welsh Rugby Union, something which should be happening anyway, if any of the four Welsh pro teams are to be able to run proper A teams.
There would then need to be a full fixture list brought in, which could either include the British and Irish Cup, or return it to the clubs and have separate games organised against the other Welsh A sides, maybe the Irish A sides, or join the Aviva Premiership A league if that were an option.
The exact figure is something that would need to be looked into, but knowing the money put into the Welsh Premiership by the WRU, and how much money they are turning over thanks to the annual report, finding the funding should not be an issue for the governing body.
With this avenue unlikely in the immediate future though, the best option seems to be returning the British and Irish Cup to one of the three Premiership clubs within the pathway.
This may seem like a backwards step, but when you consider those aforementioned restrictions resulting in just nine Cardiff Blues contracted players, it’s not that much of a difference in terms of development.
Indeed, when Pontypridd were regularly competing in the knockout stages before Premiership Select Xvs were introduced, to see 10 or so Cardiff Blues contracted players in their matchday squad was not uncommon, therefore reducing any impact on academy development.
Those players joining a settled club environment may actually be more beneficial to becoming part of the Premiership Barbarians setup we currently have, although should it be Merthyr, as is currently most likely out of the three sides, then it may be slightly trickier with only two Academy players allocated to The Wern currently.
However, we now have a good transitional coaching team headed up by Clive Jones and including Richie Rees and Duane Goodfield, offering some training ground expertise and no doubt on hand to assist our BIC entrant.
Whatever the outcome, it now feels like all parties are accepting that something needs to change at this step of the pathway in an attempt to properly bridge the semi-professional to professional gap.
It’s only taken three years to finally get the Team Wales senior player selection policy right. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll get the development pathway right too!