Cardiff’s announcement that second row Ben Murphy was leaving for Doncaster Knights with immediate effect undoubtedly signalled the start of a squad overhaul that director of rugby Dai Young is keen on undertaking.
He joined in January towards the end of the recruitment and retention window at a time when finances were uncertain due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, along with the Welsh Rugby Union’s ridiculous £20m loan and their lack of urgency when it comes to payment levels for 2021 and beyond.
As a result the only squad changes we saw were the arrival of Matthew Screech and Rhys Priestland, alongside the release of Ethan Lewis, while the departure of Cory Hill was an unplanned one during the summer itself. There is also a question mark over whether Screech and Priestland are actually Young signings or whether they were done before he arrived.
So now we’re starting to see Cardiff’s squad be properly shaped by the DoR, and as such the club have already announced the signings of Wales internationals Thomas Young and Taulupe Faletau by mid-November, a change in policy from last season where the world and his wife knew the two new signings had put pen-to-paper a good few weeks before their unveiling.
Obviously there’s been a lot of chat about our extensive back row options on the back of those signings, with Ellis Jenkins, James Botham, Josh Navidi, Josh Turnbull, Shane Lewis-Hughes, James Ratti, Alun Lawrence, Will Boyde and Olly Robinson all in the senior squad, along with Gwilym Bradley, Alex Mann, Evan Lloyd, Ethan Fackrell, Mackenzie Martin and Gwilym Evans in the academy squad.
However as looked at in pieces on each signing; Young and Faletau, they may well be cost effective even without seeing other back rowers have to move on to make space on the wage bill.
Instead what we’ll see Dai do is overhaul the squad in terms of quality, with effectively every player on trial since he arrived in January and that continuing into this season as he properly implements his leadership style around the training ground with coaching techniques and backroom staff, as well as his tactical style on-the-field.
The word is that he has drawn up a fairly lengthy list of players he would like to move on, with a fairly strong contingent of players aged 23 or over who are on the fringes of the squad at risk of the chop, but there are challenges related to contract lengths after the pandemic.
Essentially it appears that as part of the pay cuts that players took during that first lockdown period, there were some who also agreed to new contract terms whereby their pay would be reduced in return for the security of longer term contracts.
Now at the time that was highly likely to have been a sensible approach with the full impacts of the pandemic a complete unknown and there being an extremely urgent need to safeguard the future of the business however possible. Unfortunately, it now leaves Young’s hands tied somewhat.
There are players that he no doubt wants to move on but who may have contracts until the summer of 2023. At a time when funding is being cut in the Greene King Championship, and salary caps lowered in the Gallagher Premiership, while the other Welsh sides are facing similar budget restrictions to ourselves, offers are not readily on the table to remain a professional rugby player.
Cardiff are unlikely to have the financial power to pay players off, therefore the overhauling of the squad will be a slow process, relying on waiting for contracts to end unless rare opportunities to move earlier arise, as in the case of Ben Murphy who could well have been retained as a squad member but is offered opportunity for regular rugby and for the club to move a fringe player contract off the books.
So while the recruitment window has got off to a good start, supporters should not get ahead of ourselves that all of our squad’s deficiencies will be solved by the time the 2022/23 campaign rolls around next September.
There will be additional signings, I don’t doubt that, but the chances of a big overseas second row signing, or a big overseas hooker signing, for example, are not to be expected over the next few months necessarily. They will hopefully come over time as the squad is overhauled.
Instead we wait to see exactly who in the current squad remains in Young’s plans, and which of the senior and international players he can convince to remain on board as the Blue and Blacks rebuild from a decade of league mediocrity into a European rugby powerhouse once again.