The COVID-19 pandemic will have severe and long-lasting consequences for professional rugby in Wales for many years to come as belts are revenues take a hit and belts are severely tightened.
During a recent meeting with the CF10 Arms Park Rugby Trust, Cardiff Blues Ltd company secretary Martyn Ryan spoke about taking a minimum cost approach towards Cardiff Blues and Cardiff RFC with a priority being protecting the Academy.
What that means in practice is unknown but it’s a fair guess that we won’t be seeing many big money signings at the Arms Park any time soon, with recruitment and retention going to have to be a careful balance between trying to improve the squad hile ensuring the books remain balanced.
Of course if this pandemic produces a global calendar then the recovery may well be quicker than was first thought, with increased commercial opportunities in the international and club game. In the meantime though, the Cardiff Blues Academy is going to take on a critical level of importance.
Fortunately there has been a lot of good work done on this front over the last two years, putting us in a position to rely on the Academy to produce good quality players over the next few years who can ensure we continue to progress on the field while not costing money that we don’t have.
Since his arrival in the summer of 2018 it has been difficult not to be impressed with what Gruff Rees has done as Academy Manager after leaving the Ospreys at their Attack Coach, coming back to his hometown club who he briefly represented back in the 1995/96 season.
At the time he came in the Academy was in a state of flux, after the year Clive Jones spent in charge had seen the attempted introduction of specific regional pathways within the regional pathway as a whole which had only really had a negative impact during that 12 months.
Before that it was current Cardiff Blues defence coach Richard Hodges in charge and while at that time there was a number of good players who came through the system, we still saw the likes of Will Griff-John, Luke Hamilton, Cory Hill and Thomas Young slide through our fingers.
What Rees, along with John Mulvihill, has done is introduced a properly joined up pathway that aims to comprehensively develop young players in the region, rather than rely on the fact that setups like Rhondda Schools Rugby and Coleg y Cymoedd will always produce quality players no matter what Cardiff Blues do.
Starting from the bottom up and Aled James is in a full-time position of Talent Pathway Manager looking to identify players at the Dewar Shield U15 level and getting more hands on when players are 14 and 15 years old ahead of entering the regional age grade system at U16.
The aim ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic was then to put full-time coaches in at the U16 level, and hopefully that will still be possible, to improve the level of coaching and player welfare when players are 15 and 16, while the big improvement at that level has come from the contracting and assisting education of the players.
We have already seen a number of players coming out of the U16 squad into the U18 setup and being contracted by Cardiff Blues, while there is a move now to offer scholarships to those that wish to pursue their education over the Severn Bridge at the likes of Clifton College or Millfield.
That firstly prevents the loss of players to clubs such as Bristol and Gloucester in the West of England, while it also means that those players who have been contracted can have their development properly laid out in front of them at an earlier stage, which no doubt has played a part in Cardiff Blues U18 winning the Regional Age Grade Championship this season under full-time coach Craig Everett.
This then leads into the next phase of the joined up pathway as the relationship between the three Indigo Group Premiership sides in the region and and the Cardiff Blues has been much improved in the last two years.
Players have gone in and properly become embedded within the culture at Cardiff, Pontypridd and Merthyr which provides them with a much better experience off the field and allows them to perform better on it, with Ben Thomas the prime example of that.
With players getting contracted early it also allows the likes of Ethan Lloyd at Cardiff and Mason Grady at Pontypridd to step up to the Premiership level when still technically an U18, with Grady then going on to play for Wales U20 a year early. There’s no doubt someone like Ben Burnell would also played senior rugby while still an U18 but for the season being cancelled.
The key aspect of the development pathway is then making the step from Premiership rugby to the Guinness Pro14 with the Cardiff Blues. The Celtic Cup does a partial job, while Gruff Rees has spoken about the potential for a Cardiff Blues Academy side to take on English counterparts, but there’s still a gap there.
It is perhaps this that leads to a perception that Cardiff Blues don’t have a planned way to bring players into the first team, instead requiring an injury or international call-up to provide an opportunity, but that is the next step to focus on for Rees and the first team coaching stuff.
For now plenty of credit should go to Gruff Rees for the work he is going for the pathway between roughly 14 and 21, which appears healthier than it has ever been. Long may it continue!