Every now and again you get a reminder of just what a cut-throat business professional sport is, and the news that John Mulvihill has left his role as Cardiff Blues head coach with immediate effect is certainly one of those.
When assessing his time at the Arms Park I just want to deal in what is generally accepted to be fact rather than whispers. You may well see suggestion that there was unhappiness from players or undermining from senior management, but all that is nothing more than speculation at this point. There are as many voices refuting those accusations as there are making the claims.
At the point he arrived it seemed like the Cardiff Blues job was a great one to take on, with the side having just gone on a pretty much unbeaten run in the second half of the 2017/18 campaign, won the European Challenge Cup and qualified for the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time in five years.
However, things unravelled quickly and left John Mulvihill with a much tougher job than it looked on the surface, trying to rebuild a squad while faced with a number of unforeseen circumstances and an already crippling budget restriction.
Within two years the Australian had seen Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Fa’ao Filise, Sam Warburton and Nick Williams all call time on their careers. The likes of Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Josh Navidi, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans and Owen Lane were all regulars in Wales squads, while Ellis Jenkins was ruled out by the serious knee injury that has kept him sidelined for 26 months.
Having been appointed too late in 2018 to make any real impact in that recruitment window, the 2019 window was scuppered by Project Reset. Having worked towards one budget and signed Hallam Amos and Josh Adams, chances of bolstering the pack were then ruined by the uncertainty created by Reset and the subsequent return of the budget to the previous season’s level.
Reset also cost Cardiff Blues the chance to re-sign Rhys Carre and Gareth Anscombe, both of whom departed that summer, before 2020 saw the arrival of coronavirus and a collective tightening of belts in Welsh rugby that prevented a South African second row from arriving in the Welsh capital ahead of this current season.
Even without these circumstances the budget at the Arms Park is well behind the likes of Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Scarlets, even before comparisons with the English and French sides when it comes to European competition.
With Mulvihill also having to make a change in the attack coach position between his first and second seasons, it is fair to say that the rugby department at Cardiff Blues has never been one that has been moulded by the Australian. He’s always had to make do, rather than been able to implement a plan.
Despite that there have been high points. The double over Scarlets in the first season, competing with Saracens in the Heineken Cup, a first win in a decade over the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium, the thrashing of Pau at the Arms Park in December 2019 which is up there with one of the most complete Cardiff performances in history.
Perhaps the notable successes have come in player development though. Working with Academy Manager Gruff Rees a pathway has been developed from age grade rugby to the first team, which had been lacking for many years.
The likes of Keiron Assiratti, Shane Lewis-Hughes, James Botham, Ben Thomas and Max Llewellyn have all become established first team squad members during Mulvihill’s tenure, while Iestyn Harris, Teddy Williams, Gwilym Bradley, Jamie Hill, Luke Scully and Mason Grady have all been handed debuts ahead of more senior options within the squad.
That leads us to where we are now. A squad making a real transition from having a serious disparity between the first team and the international window team, to having a core of quality players backed up by a small group of dependable senior professionals and a number of really exciting youngsters.
Looking forwards and the next year could see some developments that really benefit Cardiff Blues. Firstly, a potential end to the coronavirus pandemic, along with (supposed) government financial help and the departing of some not up-to-the-standard squad players should see room in the playing budget to finally make the improvements required to the forward pack.
That, coupled with a mooted Pro16 that sees the amount of league games cut from 21 to 18 and subsequently no clashes with international games, should see a slimmed down and improved squad stand a better chance of being competitive in 2021/22.
It feels almost unfair that Mulvihill will now not have the chance to properly get to grips with a recruitment window. With Dwayne Peel coming in to run the attack, and the option there for a new forwards coach to come in if so wished, there was a chance to properly see what he could do as a head coach.
I understand the concerns about the inability to consistently get the best out of the squad that is currently available. If finance is put in to properly upgrading the coaching setup as a whole now alongside improvements to the playing squad then the decision to go in a different direction may well prove to be a masterstroke, but it just doesn’t quite sit right with me.
Perhaps I’m being over-romantic about the whole situation, but after three years of battling circumstances out of his control, the chance to have a fair crack of the whip in the role of Cardiff Blues head coach as been taken away from John Mulvihill. He’s been very unlucky, and has every right to feel somewhat pissed off this week.