As it turned out Cardiff Blues actually could have had a decent dig at Rainbow Cup success. If we had sent more than a scratch team to the Ospreys in round one we would have been in serious contention before heading to Munster in round four after wins over Scarlets and Dragons.
That small piece of success would have been enjoyable no doubt, but Dai Young’s use of the competition leaves his side in a much better place to aim for medium-to-long term success as we head into what could be a turned corner of a 2021/22 campaign.
Having only properly taken over the director of rugby job in April, when he signed a long-term contract to stay at the Arms Park beyond this summer, Young has taken the opportunity to stress-test, if you like, a range of aspects within the club’s rugby department both on and off the field.
He started with the departure of Tom Smith as forwards coach, taking on that role himself assisted by Duane Goodfield and T Rhys Thomas, as well as overseeing a tweak to the attacking set up which would seem to have roots in his rugby league days; upping the tempo of phase play, widening the field and allowing the danger men to roam with more freedom looking for space.
In terms of personnel then, Young has taken an overview of the wider squad, selecting 43 players over the course of the five games including giving debuts to the likes of Ellis Bevan and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, first team chances for other young players in the form of Will Davies-King, Teddy Williams, Gwilym Bradley and Jamie Hill, as well as fringe senior players who haven’t appeared much this calendar year.
With the Cardiff squad hardly changing over the course of this summer, as just one senior player departs and two new signings come in, Young has to get a look at everyone in a game environment to understand where they are in terms of their current ability and what their potential talent ceiling is.
What that means for the medium term is that when the squad returns in pre-season there’s no need for the director of rugby to spend time assessing the players, instead he can get to work immediately on building a game plan that suits the strengths and weaknesses at his disposal, as well as attempting to lessen the amount of weaknesses.
Pre-season won’t be especially long ahead of the 2021/22 campaign getting going in late September. By the time the players in the Wales squad return to training there may only be three or four weeks until the new season starts. As a result, time spent looking at the squad during the Rainbow Cup will be key in terms of maximising preparation time come August.
Plenty of players put their hand up during the last few weeks; Gwilym Bradley at flanker, James Ratti at number eight, Ellis Bevan at scrum-half, Max Llewellyn and Ben Thomas at inside centre, Willis Halaholo at outside centre, Jason Harries on the wing. This will create some superb battles for starting spots come the Autumn.
The tactical tweaks seemed to pay off immensely as we dominated large parts of the games against Dragons, Scarlets, Munster and Zebre, while the areas that Young needs to work on were stark as well, with fitness deserting us at times, the maul defence collapsing at points and the kicking game occasionally letting us down.
So when the squad does get back together over the summer there can be a clear plan in place to take us towards being competitive from round one of the United Rugby Championship.
It was almost a free-hit for Dai Young to get to grips with what is at his disposal, and he’s used it almost perfectly in that respect. It might not have been the short-term success it could have been, but it stands us in great stead to shoot for medium-to-long term success.