The inaugural Celtic Cup campaign has come to an end for Cardiff Blues A, and although we ultimately fell just a point short of top spot in the Welsh pool, there were positives aplenty for the young side.
When looking at the competitive side of the tournament it’s a case of ‘what if’ in two narrow home defeats to Irish opposition during rounds three and four.
A win away at Dragons A before a heavy defeat at Leinster A were expected to kick off the season, but the first home games for Cardiff Blues A welcomed Ulster A and Munster A to the Arms Park.
Up against the Northern Irish side the weather played a huge factor, as the players contended with the famous wind from the River End of the ground, and ultimately fell to a 3-7 defeat. Then the following week Munster A came to town and Cardiff Blues A came up just short as without a recognised kicker we lost by a single point thanks to two missed kicks.
Had either of those been turned from a losing bonus point into a win then the season outcome would have seen us jump the Scarlets A and finish top of the Welsh pool, subsequently qualifying for the inaugural Celtic Cup Final. However, it was not to be.
The good thing about this Celtic Cup campaign though, is that as important as instilling a winning culture in the young players is, there are plenty of positives to be found away from the results.
Firstly, there was some great exposure given to young coaches Richie Rees and T Rhys Thomas who led the Cardiff Blues A operation, as well as current senior players Gethin Jenkins and George Earle who lent a hand with the coaching.
Then, altogether they used 38 players throughout the six games of the season giving some high quality game time to those who otherwise would have been without a game or left playing in the semi-professional Welsh Premiership as they’re not involved in the Pro14 first team squad, especially the 11 players I would count as senior squad members who played.
A very encouraging 26 of that 38 were aged under-23 while playing over the last two months, giving a real development flavour to the squad, while two Cardiff RFC and one University of South Wales player got a chance to experience playing rugby at a higher level than they otherwise would have.
This is where the final positive of the Celtic Cup is seen, as the players benefit from a professional environment right throughout the seven-week block of fixtures, not just on a matchday.
It is a world away from the thrown together Barbarian nature of the old Premiership Select squad that played in the British and Irish Cup in this respect.
The entire squad trains together and with the first team at The Vale Resort throughout the week, benefitting from a good quality on-field training setup as well as access to the professional strength and conditioning regime.
They then have full analysis ability in terms of reviewing team performance, individual aspects to their game and previewing the next weekend’s opponents, developing match-specific game plans and tactics. Just like they will experience in the first team.
This chance to play, train and develop in a full-time professional environment should not be under-estimated, and is the perfect segway between age grade and first team rugby that has otherwise been lacking with the semi-professional Premiership clubs not able to offer this sort of setup.
Now though there has to be building done on the superb foundations laid by the first ever Celtic Cup season, both by Cardiff Blues A and the competition as a whole.
At the Arms Park it would be great to see more double headers with Cardiff RFC, as was organised alongside the Munster A game, while improved coverage of games, possibly by FreeSports who broadcast English A League games already, would be a welcome addition.
Slowly increasing the length of the competition will be key, perhaps bringing in a second part of the season in the March-May block, giving players increased opportunities to get exposure in this professional environment. Looking at bringing in Scottish teams is also a viable option.
For Cardiff Blues A the real success will now be how many players graduate into the first team, and after the last few weeks we are looking good in this area.
The likes of Shane Lewis-Hughes, Alun Lawrence, Dane Blacker and Max Llewellyn have really impressed, while Rhys Carre has already made his Pro14 debut away at Zebre.
The future is bright, the future is blue!