Over the last few years Cardiff Blues have been able to bring through a number of talented young players and turn them into established first team members and even send them off for international honours.
Shane Lewis-Hughes and Owen Lane are two fine examples of players who have graduated the Academy in the last three years, become first choice players in their positions at the Arms Park and go on to win Wales caps, with Lane going to last year’s Rugby World Cup and Lewis-Hughes making his mark during this Autumn.
My criticism during that time though has been the way in which they were given their chance in the Cardiff Blues team, with both players having to wait for an injury crisis in their respective positions before getting on the field and then impressing to such an extent that they became un-droppable.
I have written on the blog and spoken on the Cardiff Rugby Life Podcast many times about the need to have a much clearer pathway from Academy talent to first team opportunity, giving players a chance to impress by managing their exposure in the Guinness Pro14 or European competition rather than throwing them in only when needs must.
Over the last few weeks we have certainly seen a shift towards that. There was a tentative start as James Botham began the season wearing the number seven jersey, and Ben Murphy jumped up the second row pecking order to back up internationals Cory Hill and Seb Davies during the first two rounds of the campaign.
Unfortunately it took a performance like Edinburgh to see a real step change though, with some older squad members who have reached their talent ceiling being moved out of the way in order to blood some talented youngsters who, although lacking in experience, have the potential to be better players in the long-term.
As Cardiff Blues supporters I like to think that we would be more understanding of a mistake from a young player who is learning their trade and can become better on the back of said mistake, than seeing an older player who is naturally limited in their ability holding the team back.
Too often during his first two years at the helm at the Arms Park, John Mulvihill has chosen the perhaps ‘safer hands’ of limited older players over the raw potential of young players, perhaps in part due to the culture around Welsh professional rugby of playing it safe with team selections and trying to grind out results.
However since that Edinburgh game Iestyn Harris, Keiron Assiratti, Alun Lawrence, Jamie Hill and Ben Thomas have all seen various amounts of game time when there were other more senior options, or were trusted to step in when an older option required a rest but previously would have been asked to play on.
None have looked out of place thus far and given great cause for optimism that not only will they improve the strength in depth of the squad over the next few years, but that they will also contribute to short-term successes, with Hill in particular playing a key part in the win over Benetton at Rodney Parade.
There is still progress to be made, of that there is no doubt. This weekend’s game in Leinster is an example with Jason Tovey replacing Jarrod Evans at fly-half rather than Ben Thomas. Of course the team would have trained with two playmakers at 10 and 12 all week, but Tovey is so different to Evans at fly-half that using him as one of the playmakers causes disruption in it’s own way.
However, Rome wasn’t built in a day so it’s going to take some time before Cardiff Blues are getting it ‘right’, subjectively, with team selections and balancing experience with young talent.
Great progress has been made during the season so far though, and I for one am much more encouraged by a future under John Mulvihill and his coaching staff now than I was three months ago. There are important games ahead, but we are starting to see real improvement. The key will be taking that improvement and turning it into consistently good performances and, crucially, results.