A season of pain, permits but progress for Cardiff RFC

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Amidst the jubilation of Cardiff Blues winning a second European Challenge Cup on Friday night, Cardiff RFC’s season also came to an end on the weekend, albeit in slightly less glamorous circumstances.

Indeed, the 17-20 loss to Ebbw Vale at the Arms Park on Saturday sort of summed up the Blue and Blacks season, in that a squad decimated by injuries was propped up by permit players, and put in a performance that should have been a hammering but retained a sense of progress in a brave second half comeback.

It’s a testament to the coaching staff, headed up by Steve Law, the players who have stayed fit, those who have come in from other clubs, and motivation offered by the jersey itself that Cardiff RFC have achieved a more than respectable eighth placed finish in the 2017/18 Principality Premiership.

Casting our minds back to the start of the season, and things got off to a real flyer under Law, who had joined up from Bedwas over the summer. Four straight wins saw the Blue and Blacks storm to the top of the Premiership East League, as rivals Newport and reigning champions Merthyr were duly dispatched.

However, there were problems around the corner as the likes of Lewys Montague, Dan Crimmins, Miles Normandale and Reuben Tucker were all lost to season sending injuries in the first three months of the season, as was club captain Joey Tomlinson.

Joey Tomlinson Cardiff RFC
Joey Tomlinson was a big loss early in the season

Narrow defeats to Ebbw Vale and Bedwas were followed by a heavy defeat at the hands of Pontypridd, but some re-inforcements from Cardiff Blues in the form of academy players Rhys Carre, James Botham, Ben Thomas, Daf Smith and Owen Lane, while first team squad members Kirby Myhill, Anton Peikrishvili, James Down, Sion Bennett, Lewis Jones, Jack Roberts and Dan Fish all got some game time in blue and black.

This stabilised the season, with three wins in five games during October and November, but three losses in December, with rivals Newport and Pontypridd amongst the teams that beat Cardiff, meant Law’s men finished the first half of the Premiership season fourth of eight in the East Conference.

January saw Cup action and a second second round exit in as many years. Neath were dispatched 13-15 in the first round, but the daunting task of taking on Merthyr faced us next, and the eventual champions ran out 12-37 winners at the Arms Park.

That fourth placed finish in the East Conference saw Cardiff take five points into the combined second half of the season, and while teams all around us saw their games called off by rain and successive beasts from the East, the Blue and Blacks got to work on the plastic pitch.

Ben Thomas Cardiff RFC
Young Cardiff Blues fly-half Ben Thomas has had valuable game time this season

Boosted by the signings of Corrie Tarrant, Rory Pitman and Tom Daley, six wins in eight games took Law’s men right into the top four of the Premiership as March rolled around, with 20 points the lowest scored in this time frame.

However, niggly injuries again took hold, and as Cardiff Blues reached the business end of the season, and Wales U20 players went into camp ahead of the Junior World Championship, results dropped off dramatically.

Just one win in the final six games saw the Blue and Blacks slide down the table, with other teams winning games in hand, and eventually Cardiff RFC would finish eighth, bang in the middle of the league.

Not a terrible result by any means, but after the two purple patches in the season had seen Law’s men climb up the table encouragingly, it is a source of great frustration that matters out of the hands of the team would see us not able to challenge at the business end of the table.

Will Rees-Hole Cardiff RFC
Will Rees-Hole has been a stalwart in the centre

There are positive signs though. A number of permit and new players have impressed, the likes of Ian Jenkins, Peter Lloyd and Geraint Watkin in particular, while the word is that recruitment is progressing nicely for next season.

The flowing style of attack seems to suit the players at the disposal of Law and attack coach Llyr Lane, while the heart within the team is clearly there. A number of brave performances have signalled that work ethic isn’t a problem, if team selection can stay somewhat consistent, Cardiff RFC could well challenge in the top half of the table once again.

As a league, the Premiership now stands at a crossroads though. Cardiff RFC’s ongoing relationship with Cardiff Blues remains unclear, as regional under-23 teams come into existence. Questions remain over just how much involvement the semi-professional level has in terms of the development pathway.

If academy players are still farmed out to Premiership teams then great, the Blue and Blacks will continue to play their part in the development of the youngsters, and benefit from their quality, but if the semi-pro teams go their own way, there is a great opportunity for them to establish themselves at the top of the domestic game in Wales.

Squads can be a lot more settled and focused entirely of the success of the teams and not just the development of young players, which should hopefully improve the competitiveness and excitement of the Premiership.

BBC Wales, now without rugby rights after the Pro14 moved to pay-per-view coverage, have an opportunity to come on board and fund the league through a TV deal, as well as giving it greater exposure to the public.

If the WRU, the clubs of the Premiership and the BBC play their cards right they could have a great success on their hands. For Cardiff RFC, although avoiding the bottom four has to be in the minds of all the Premiership teams, looking up the table should be the ultimate aim. Come on Cardiff!

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