When Clive Jones came on board as Director of Development at Cardiff Blues last summer, he was quick to try and put his own stamp on a development pathway that had recently produced a whole host of future Welsh internationals.
Dividing the areas North and South of the M4, Jones used the phrase “seven Districts, two Provinces, one Region”, mentioning how the area “has always been fiercely tribal” and how it was his job to “enable the undoubted talent here to be maximised”.
To do that he decided to split the Cardiff Blues under-18 team in half, submitting two teams into the Regional Age Grade U18 Championship to fit in with the ‘two provinces’ aspect of his ethos; Cardiff Blues U18 South and Cardiff Blues U18 North, just as they are at U16 level.
Now, there are some rugby-based reasons that could be considered for moving away from a unified under-18 setup. The players involved will likely have a greater understanding with their team-mates, having played with them at under-16 and possibly in college, at school and for their junior clubs.
There will also be a far greater number of players coming through the system, with closer to 80 boys looking to make the step up into the full-time academy after college, rather than around 40 with only one U18 team. When you’re focusing on bringing through players from the academy rather than buying them in, that is a positive.
However, the proof of whether splitting the U18s has worked is in the pudding, and that pudding is a largely poor season results-wise.
As you can see from the table, while all the South Wales sides split their U16 sides east/west or north/south, they all unify at U18 level, playing the best of the best at the top level of regional age grade rugby.
By splitting our pool of players though, Cardiff Blues have 40-odd players who the season before would not have been included in U18 squads. As a result we’ve ended up with Cardiff Blues North only managing to beat RGC twice, while Cardiff Blues South beat RGC once and Cardiff Blues North once, with the other game between the two Blues sides ending in a draw.
Scarlets, Dragons and Ospreys all secured four wins over the Cardiff Blues sides, and assuming that Ospreys would beat RGC in the only fixture left, our two teams would finish at least 18 or 19 points behind the three other professional outfits.
Of course, a valid reason for this could be just that this crop of youngsters is not as good as the other teams, but the evidence does not stack up in support of this argument.
In this season’s WRU College League, which the vast majority of each squad will play in, the four institutions in the Cardiff Blues development pathway all finished in the top seven of 13 teams, with Ysgol Glantaf losing in the semi-finals while Coleg y Cymoedd, who topped the table in the regular season, won yet another final.
Then looking at last season, where some members of the squads would have been involved in the U18s without an U17 setup, and where the side was still unified, Cardiff Blues finished in level third place alongside Scarlets and just a point behind Dragons, before beating Scarlets in a play-off series at the end of the season.
We’ve also got some results from the time that the players in the squad this season would have spent in the respective Cardiff Blues U16 sides.
Across the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons, Cardiff Blues U16 North’s record in the Regional Age Grade Championship was played 11, won 8, drawn 1, lost 2.
For Cardiff Blues U16 South, they have played 10, won 7, drawn 1, lost 2.
Even going further back and at U15 level, Rhondda Schools were Dewar Shield finalists in 2014/15 and 2015/16, while Cardiff Schools won it in 15/16 .
There are a few results that I cannot find, but that is the majority of games played in the timeframe, and both South and North, as well as the school sides, were clearly successful over the years before the squad got to college age. Certainly not a distant fourth in terms of the South Wales teams at U18 level.
So, knowing that this should have been another crop of talented youngsters coming through, the question has to be asked, what went wrong at U18 level?
The coaching in the Cardiff Blues development pathway is certainly at a good standard, and it is hard to believe that the coaching in the other three pathways is so significantly better. There are no reports of mass injuries, and the fixture list was the same for all teams.
Therefore, the natural conclusion is that splitting the U18s has not worked this season.
As mentioned above, we have ended up with a lot of players in the squads who last year would not have been deemed good enough to play U18 regional rugby. That dilutes the good quality players and, playing against the cream of other sides crops, winds up in some of the heavy scorelines that we have seen this season.
A knock on effect from that is that those players who are good enough to play for Cardiff Blues U18 are having their development risk. Playing in a lower quality environment means that they may not develop as they would have done in a competitive side, while they do not mix with players in the other ‘province’ who could be their future team-mates.
The long-term risk is that Cardiff Blues end up having to integrate academy players into one squad when they are aged 19/20, and those players are of a lower quality than they otherwise would have been in a unified U18 squad.
Of course there is a potential positive in that young players who might have slipped through the net between U16 and U18 level get another chance to prove themselves, but after the first season of this initiative at Cardiff Blues, the jury is definitely still out on splitting the U18s into North and South.
With Clive Jones rumoured to be moving on from his job with the Cardiff Blues at the end of the season it remains to be seen whether we will see Cardiff Blues U18 South and North in 2018/19, but if results are no better next year, serious questions need to be asked.