Gareth Bale, Ellis Jenkins and winning on mainland Europe

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To start this article I have to admit something which will shock the stereotype of a ball sports fan in Wales….I quite like both rugby AND football.

I know, I know, the stereotypical football fans scream ‘you can’t enjoy the egg, bet it’s only for six weeks a year anyway’, while the stereotypical rugby fans shout ‘all that falling over, it’s such a girls sport’, but I found both enjoyable in their own way.

This football support has mainly manifested itself in the Wales national team in recent years, and that led to spending a summer going back and for to France in 2016 as Chris Coleman’s men embarked on a historic run to the semi-finals of the European Championships.

The whole point to this, which brings the story back to being suitable for a rugby website, is that during the last few months of last season I was reminded of that summer with Wales when travelling around Europe watching Cardiff Blues win the Challenge Cup.

Cardiff Blues Challenge Cup 2018
We won the Challenge Cup, you know

There is of course similarities between how un-fancied Cardiff Blues and Wales were during their respective tournaments, as well as the squad spirit that was praised by the media and assisted in both teams reaching the latter knockout stages.

You could also point to both sides bouncing back from adversity, with Cardiff Blues struggling at the start of last season to put any sort of form together, while Wales had a dismal qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup.

What stuck out most as a similarity to me though is the make-up of the squad, and particularly the relative experience within a largely young squad.

Looking at the Welsh squad that travelled to France in June 2016 there were only three players over the age of 30 included, with the vast majority of players being in the 23-27 age range. When you consider players are in their peak in the 26-30 category it paints a picture of a young squad, particularly for a small nation playing in their first major tournament for 58 years.

Wales Euro 2016
In 2016 it was heartbreak in Lyon, in 2018 it was a stepping stone to Bilbao

Despite being young though, they weren’t short of caps, with many players having been brought through into the national team by John Toshack between 2008 and 2010. This meant that by the time Euro 2016 came around, the core of the squad had been together at international level for almost 10 years in some cases.

Joe Allen (aged 26 at the time) had 25 caps, Aaron Ramsey (25) had 39 caps, Hal Robson-Kanu (27) was on 30 caps, Sam Vokes (26) had 40, Joe Ledley (29) had reached 61 caps, Chris Gunter (26) was close to breaking the record for Wales’ most caps ever on 67, while Gareth Bale (26) had 55 caps to his name.

Overall, Wales’ 23-man squad had an average of 32 caps per player. Comparatively, England’s squad had an average of 19.5 caps per player at the recent World Cup, while champions France were on 23.8 caps.

Looking at the Cardiff Blues squad from last season, and specifically the academy produced players at the club, there is a very similar story in terms of players still being relatively young, but already having plenty of experience under their belts.

Scott Andrews, Macauley Cook, Kris Dacey, Dan Fish, Ellis Jenkins, Lewis Jones, Josh Navidi and Lloyd Williams are all aged between 25 and 29, and have a cumulative 1043 Cardiff Blues appearances between them.

Ellis Jenkins Benetton
Ellis Jenkins is three appearances away from joining the 100 club

Garyn Smith and Tomos Williams are not far behind, with 60 and 66 appearances, respectively, at just 23 years old, while Seb Davies, Jarrod Evans, Dillon Lewis and Aled Summerhill all qualify for the Cardiff Blues U23 team but have each played over 30 games for the first team so far in their young careers.

The positives to this are almost endless, with team cohesion improved as players play together often from a young age, improving understanding on the field and allowing the off-field culture to develop, as well as the squad being full of homegrown players who understand the club and want to play for the jersey.

For me, the real bonus of having young players with these appearance numbers though is the experience and leadership that comes with it.

The first group of Cardiff Blues players can be considered senior members of the squad, despite not being 30 years old yet, while the second group of players are well on their way to that ranking despite not even being 25 yet.

It’s very encouraging when you consider that as recently as two years ago the lack of leadership on the field from any player in a Cardiff Blues jersey was being bemoaned on a daily basis. Now, as we looked at recently, there are an abundance of options to take on the club captaincy for this season.

Jarrod Evans Zebre
Jarrod Evans will make 50 appearances early in the new season

Even though the soon-to-be-signed replacement for the Rugby Services Agreement will bring a much needed boost to the playing budget at the Arms Park, the policy brought in last season of developing youth is one that should be staying at the forefront of everything we do as a club over the next few years.

Homegrown players keep the culture of the club going, provide the depth in the squad needed to compete at the top level of multiple competitions, and are cheaper to produce than buying in talent from other Welsh regional academies or from abroad.

The money saved can then be spent on acquiring on a smaller number of higher quality non-Welsh qualified players to supplement the academy graduates, as Cardiff Blues have done this summer with the signings of Dmitri Arhip and Samu Manoa.

Our squad is shaping up very nicely for this season and beyond, as more players commit their futures to the Arms Park. Long may it continue!

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