The Celtic Cup came to a close over the weekend, for all teams with the exception of Leinster A and Ulster A, who will contest the second ever Final next weekend.
For Cardiff Blues A it brought to an end a tough two months, that has perhaps raised questions over whether the competition serves its purpose during a Rugby World Cup.
Now I still believe that the Celtic Cup is a more than worthwhile tournament. In fact, I’d go as far to say that it is the biggest advancement of the professional development pathway in Wales since regional rugby came into being in 2003.
It offers a valuable professional playing experience for young players in the 18-23 age bracket that has already worked wonders for Cardiff Blues in bringing through Shane Lewis-Hughes and Harri Millard, as well as offering players like Liam Belcher and Jamie Hill a second contract having previously been released.
Beyond the on-field advantage on the weekend the Celtic Cup also offers players and coaches the chance to work together throughout the week, taking advantage of pre and post match analysis, full-time training, and strength and conditioning work.
However, this season the issue for Cardiff Blues has been getting together a squad to play in the Celtic Cup, which has resulted in some quite remarkable statistics.
Altogether there were 78 players used across the eight games. The breakdown of that is as follows; 26 Cardiff Blues players, 8 Cardiff Blues Academy players, 6 Cardiff Blues U18 players, 20 Cardiff RFC players, 6 Pontypridd players, 4 Merthyr players, 2 Wales Sevens players, 2 Glamorgan Wanderers players, and 1 player from each of Bedlinog, Wales Exiles, Cardiff Met and Cardiff Uni.
There are so many takeaways from that. 78 players is close to double the number of players in the Cardiff Blues senior squad. Only eight players from the senior academy squad got game time. A number of 17-year-olds were required. Amateur players from the WRU Championship were called upon.
Essentially, it felt like Cardiff Blues A completed an obligation to partake in the Celtic Cup this season, and I stress that I do not blame the management at the Arms Park for any of the problems that have been faced in this last two months.
Reasons for using such a large amount of players, and players from such varied setups, are fairly numerous, but the overriding problems come back to two major categories; the Rugby World Cup, and the playing budget of Cardiff Blues.
Starting with the Rugby World Cup and its impact on the domestic season in the Northern Hemisphere is obvious, with the Guinness Pro14 only starting on the last weekend of September, a month later than normal.
This meant that with the Celtic Cup kicking off in August the majority of the Cardiff Blues squad were not in a position to be playing that early in pre-season, aiming instead to start peaking about five weeks later.
Had they started playing from round one of the competition then the season would become an incredibly long one, with the regular Pro14 campaign not finishing until May next year.
This then links into the budget restrictions at the Arms Park currently because, in an ideal world, there would be a squad of players that could be made available for the Celtic Cup knowing that they wouldn’t be called upon to feature in the Pro14.
Taking Leinster as an example and, even with a number of players involved in the Ireland squad, plus a squad of around 25 in Canada to play a friendly with their national team, they were still able to bring a side over to Cardiff that contained Academy contracted players all in the 18-23 age bracket including U20 Grand Slam winners from last season.
Cardiff Blues on the other hand put out a team that were majority Indigo Group Premiership players, part-timers that looked more like the old Premiership Select XVs, as their season got going on the first weekend of September.
Back to the ideal world, and I’d have liked to have seen players like Corey Domachowski, Liam Belcher, Kieron Assiratti, Ben Murphy, James Botham, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Ben Thomas, Harri Millard and Ioan Davies all involved from that week one game against Leinster.
However, the stark reality is that the budget restrictions mean that the vast majority of those players have been fast-tracked to the first team squad and were being prepared for Pro14 action.
A number have been involved against Southern Kings and/or Edinburgh already, while just one injury and others will be called upon. That is how thin the squad is at the moment as we do not have the budget to compete with fellow Welsh side Scarlets, let alone the Irish big hitters.
As the competition went on we saw an almost first team put out against Dragons, which was treated as a pre-season friendly due to the Rugby World Cup fracturing the season, and then a number of U18s and Championship players called upon with the first team squad taking a number of the aforementioned players to South Africa.
It was only in the final round against Scarlets were we able to put out what resembled an ideal Celtic Cup team, with the first team playing at home the next day and the coaches being able to release the likes of Thomas and Davies to the A side.
Next year I’ve no doubt we’ll see a return to the success of last season’s inaugural competition, as it is played alongside the beginning of the Pro14 at the end of pre-season and international players are not missing for any great length of time.
In four years though, we perhaps need to look at what sort of format the Celtic Cup takes in a World Cup year, or what sort of involvement Cardiff Blues can commit to, as this year has largely been a write-off.