Flicking through pictures I’ve taken of this Cardiff Blues season on the way back from Bilbao, I happened across one I took of the AJ Bell Stadium just six months ago, and weirdly it brought a smile to my face.
That Saturday in December had seen us leave very early on a coach from the Arms Park and make the long motorway trek up to Greater Manchester, during which the air got colder, the ground got whiter, and the layers got thicker.
80 minutes of ‘action’ later and we were desperately lucky to get nil, my body temperature had slipped to somewhere below -5 degrees, and we still had the danger of a night out in Warrington to overcome. I blame the dodgy nightclub there, and the poor showing from the team, for my hangover of death the next day.
At this point please spare a thought for my sister who, due to living in Manchester, decided to make Sale v Cardiff Blues her very first rugby match. She will never go to another game.
Anyway, I digress. The point of that story was the photograph’s caption which read, ‘one day it will become clear to me why I trekked up to Salford to watch an abysmal performance in freezing conditions and snow. One day…’.
Well, I can tell you now, it all became very clear to me at about 11pm Spanish time on that Friday night when Gareth Anscombe hammered the ball high into the San Mames Stadium, before Gethin and Ellis Jenkins lifted Cardiff Blues’ second European Challenge Cup trophy.
The truth is that those hard times make the good times all the more sweeter. Although that Sale game was a somewhat isolated experience this season, the last few years have seen plenty of hard times, and Friday was oh so sweet as a result.
This isn’t a ‘woe is me’ blog though, but a thank you.
It’s a thank you to the players, who have been absolutely superb this season. Whether just starting out, in the twilight of a career or somewhere in between, they have played some superb rugby along the way and given us the chance to make memories for life.
Perhaps what we don’t thank them enough for though, is the physical sacrifice they make to play professional rugby these days.
There are an increasing amounts of early retirements in the game currently, with players putting their long term health on the line. We currently have men within the squad who are facing up to mental health issues and injuries that could be deemed life-changing. No Cardiff Blues player should think we take their efforts for granted.
Getting the majority of the squad patched up and on the field this season has been a huge reason for our success, with credit going to the medical and strength and conditioning teams for providing consistency in squad selection and a fitness level that has allowed us to play the high tempo game plan.
That game plan is one that has been tinkered with and perfected by the coaching staff, headed up by Danny Wilson, with Matt Sherratt getting the backs firing, and Shaun Edwards and Richard Hodges working to overhaul our defence into a well oiled machine.
Duane Goodfield, Richie Rees and Nicky Robinson have also worked hard to get the young players up to the speed of professional level, with the coaches on the whole working wonders despite off-field distractions and a slightly unconventional coaching setup.
There is also a thank you to the Cardiff Blues staff not in the rugby department.
The media team headed up by Mike Brown has produced some fine output, with some of the videos both pre and post-match in Bilbao being fine works, while Luke Hughes and the ticket office have worked hard to offer a top service across season ticket sales, a European semi-final sell-out and a poorly organised Spanish ticketing website for the final.
Getting Rhys Blumberg back on board as General Manager appears to have been an inspired move, with well-known British and multi-national brands joining the sponsors at the Arms Park, while supporter interaction has noticeably improved.
Chief Executive Richard Holland has been involved as well and, a year after I questioned how valued we are as Cardiff Blues supporters in the midst of the ‘WRU takeover’ talk, two supporter Q+As and a regular CEO newsletter have been very well received.
These have been organised in conjunction with the two supporter groups, who have worked tirelessly once again this season to improve all aspects of the organisation.
Cardiff Blues Supporters Club have been superb in putting on events, away trips and supporters guides, while their work around the final in Bilbao, both over in Spain and at CAP, belies the fact that these are only volunteers, putting in hours around normal life for the benefit of the wider fan base.
Similarly, CF10 Arms Park Rugby Trust have done plenty of unseen work, networking with Cardiff Blues, Cardiff Athletic Club, the WRU and politicians to try and shape a modern Cardiff Blues Ltd and secure our future at CAP, while the online Cardiff Rugby Museum is a truly outstanding piece of work.
Finally, it’s a thank you to all of the supporters who have really come together behind the team this season and helped make it such a special one.
Obviously success can mask issues on occasion, and I’m not going to say everything is all well and good in the world of Cardiff Blues, the ground situation and issues with governance at board level still linger in the background, but amongst the supporters I haven’t known harmony like it for a good few years.
The improved communication between the club and the supporters has pretty much killed the ‘name debate’, the new Rugby Services Agreement is looking very promising indeed, we are all enjoying the style of play, and a general suspicion of Macron has brought us together as one.
At this point the future on the field is a touch unclear, as is always the case when a new head coach is set to takeover, but whatever happens in the coming weeks, months and years, I feel like this season will be one that sticks out in the memory.
2017/18, it’s been a pleasure, even Sale away!