The 2020/21 that was: A view from the sofa

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Cardiff Blues’ 2020/21 campaign may well end up holding the record for the most pub quiz questions spawned from one season in history.

It started just four weeks after the previous season finished, it took place entirely behind closed doors, the league was called the Pro14 but was only competed for by 12 teams, it was only 16 games long, it included a hastily arranged one-off competition, saw us change head coaches/directors of rugby, play at three different home grounds and just the small matter of a re-branding.

A quiet one then, all-in-all!

When it comes to assessing the results that 2020/21 produced, it’s a fairly mediocre picture, not unlike previous seasons. Eight wins and eight losses from the 16 games the Guinness Pro14 regular season took to complete saw us finish with a winning percentage of between 45% and 55% for the sixth year in a row.

Scoring 265 points at an average of 16.5 points per game, with 30 tries for at an average of just under two tries per game, and conceding 284 points at an average of 17.75 points per game, with 32 tries against at an average of two tries per games, is about as middle of the road as it is possible to get.

A fourth place finish in Conference B, three points behind Welsh rivals Scarlets, was followed up by a fifth place finish in the one-off Rainbow Cup where three wins and two losses was enough to keep us competitive, and may have been even better had we taken the competition seriously from the get-go.

The European Challenge Cup saw us qualify for the knockout stage having taken the field just once, a win away at Newcastle, before Stade Francais gave us a 28-0 win after choosing, wisely you might say, not to travel to Newport, but the progress was ended in a ding-dong battle at London Irish, and that was the season that was.

However, 2020/21 was less about the results and more about the progression in the playing squad and coaching set up from the start to the end, putting us in a great position to kick on over the next two-to-three years with the next wave of homegrown talent.

The problem for Cardiff all season was the lack of availability of international stars as the national unions battled to increase their own revenue streams with what seemed, at times, to be a never-ending run of test matches covering two Six Nations tournaments, Autumn exhibition games and even a newly created Autumn Nations Cup.

Just eight of the 18 Pro14 and Challenge Cup games were played outside the extended international windows, meaning the likes of Dillon Lewis, Cory Hill, Josh Navidi and Josh Adams were only available for a maximum of 44.4% of games between October and April.

Of those eight games where, injuries permitting, the whole squad was available to select from, Cardiff won six out of our eight games. Meanwhile of the 10 games played during the international windows, we won just three games.

It underlined the lack of quality that we had in our wider squad compared to those sides with the bigger budgets who can cope with losing upwards of 10 players to injury and international call-up, but particularly in our senior group of fringe players, and constituted a change in approach to how we replace the star players as the season wore on.

Gone were the safe selections of older players with 100+ senior appearances in their careers, playing at their talent ceiling and not necessarily playing poorly, but not often enough putting in game winning performances, and in came risky selections of talented youngsters who can certainly win a game but would no doubt make mistakes as they continued their development.

Theo Bevacqua, Iestyn Harris, Teddy Williams, Gwilym Bradley, Jamie Hill, Max Llewellyn and Mason Grady all got run-outs during international windows, either making their debuts or adding to just a handful of games, and not looking out of place as they made the step up to senior professional rugby.

Fast-forward to the Rainbow Cup and, with Dai Young now having replaced John Mulvihill at the helm, he took the chance to look at some players in different positions. James Ratti played at number eight, Owen Lane played at centre and Ben Thomas got game time at fly-half, inside centre and full-back.

There was also an evolution in playing style, from too controlled and formulaic, to fast-paced and freely attacking. We zipped from phase-to-phase, not overly concerned with scoring every time but ensuring the ball was retained, pressure applied to the opposition and waiting for a lapse either in defensive or discipline to pounce on.

It’s in those young talents, that wider squad depth and the exciting evolution of our attacking game which are the basis for the positivity moving forwards, but they do come with a word of warning that permanently building a base to kick on from will get old eventually.

For a number of years we have found reasons to be excited for next season, and during the long off-seasons the club game experiences the hope always builds. What would be great is if, for once, it didn’t kill us by the time Christmas rolls around once again!

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