As much as I try I am still struggling to comprehend and get over just how shoddily Cardiff brought the curtain down on the 2021/22 season over the last two months.
Last week I wrote about how it was for the players and coaches to deal with the level of their personal performances in that final part of the campaign and that, my from my point of view, it was time to look forward towards how the Blue and Blacks were going to escape the mess that we have got ourselves into.
To start that process though I am going to have to dip into recent weeks on-the-field with a focus on team selections, why Dai Young still incurs criticism despite my strong belief that a change of Director of Rugby would not really achieve anything, and generally what the process is for integrating talented youngsters into the first team at the Arms Park.
Rewind to mid-April and Cardiff have just been hammered by the Scarlets home and away on back-to-back weekends with an aggregate score of 84-34 in favour of our West Wales rivals. Following that the season was done for the team in terms of challenging for silverware or European qualification.
At that point consideration should have been strongly given to changing things up with the team selection, but I appreciate why a fairly strong team went away to Saracens in the Challenge Cup with an outside chance of progressing in that tournament, while there are also strong arguments to be made for the fairly strong team that faced Ospreys the week following with a full house at CAP and season tickets to sell.
However, it is from this point of the season on where the selections that Young was making ceased making any sense to me.
The final three games of the campaign were Zebre at home, Dragons away and Benetton away. There was nothing on them from a competitive point-of-view, and while there are arguments to be made for still finishing as high up the table as possible or securing some victories to boost confidence, they are both very short-term outlooks.
What should have happened is that Young made statements in the media that explained that those three games were all about developing the squad and individuals within that, rather than results, and cast aside a number of players who had proved they were either not good enough or not interested enough to play first team rugby, and a number of other players who had played a lot of consecutive matches who’s abilities are well known.
In their place a squad could have been put together featuring a handful of experienced players, but crucially a good number of young players who have impressed either for the Rags, Wales U20 or in limited first team minutes. They would have had three games to blend as a unit and progress on an individual level as well as putting their hand up for more involvement next season and sending a message to more experienced players that their position in the first team is not safe by any means.
What we ended up with was a dreadful mish-mash of selections whereby an experienced team demolished Zebre in the first half before a whole host of changes made performing very difficult for young players in the second half, an experienced team then limped past Dragons despite some poor individual performances from senior players with young players left unused on the bench, before an inexperienced team was thrown in at the deep end for one game away at Benetton and absolutely hammered.
Once Cardiff had committed to picking experienced sides that should really have continued through to that final game of the season in Treviso, as the nightmare scenario has now been achieved whereby confidence has been shattered, momentum has been killed and young players were given just one game’s opportunity.
The part that is particularly worrying is Young’s comments ahead of that Benetton clash where he spoke about his use of young players, suggesting there were opportunities aplenty because “we finished the other day with Ellis Bevan, Ben Thomas, Max Llewellyn, Theo Cabango and Teddy Williams”.
Let’s take a look at the stats then. Since Cardiff got back to playing regular rugby at the start of March we have had 12 games in as many weeks, so that’s 960 minutes of on-field action. Ellis Bevan got 53 minutes, Ben Thomas got 370, Max Llewellyn got 568, Theo Cabango got 640 and Teddy Williams got 156.
Putting aside the fact that he could only name five players who were getting opportunities, one of whom is already a Welsh international, that’s pitifully poor for the likes of Bevan and Williams, and even Thomas for this stage of his career. Even more frustrating is that the two players who have had good opportunities in Llewellyn and Cabango have taken those with both hands as Max grew in confidence week-on-week while getting a run of starts, while Theo did not look out of place in the first team at all.
There is frustration even within that though as Cabango was only able to secure an opportunity early in that run of 12 games because injuries to Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill, as well as the international call-up of Josh Adams, meant he and Jason Harries were the only wingers fit in South Africa to face the Lions.
It’s something that I have written about before and tweet about a lot, but Cardiff desperately need to look at effective ways of integrating talented young players into the first team.
There are of course elements of the development pathway that are not entirely in the club’s hands, such as A team rugby being introduced to bridge the gap between the Indigo Group Premiership and United Rugby Championship, but we need to be more organised and, perhaps, braver around giving new blood an opportunity.
Looking at some of the breakout stars of the last few years and the likes of Will Davies-King, Teddy Williams, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Ellis Bevan, Jamie Hill, Owen Lane and Theo Cabango have all had to wait for injuries to make their mark in the first team rather than having their progress managed, while Iestyn Harris, Ben Murphy, Alun Lawrence and Dane Blacker are among the names who have left the club with “what ifs” hanging over them having never really been given a fair shot to prove themselves.
With budgets tighter than ever and the gap to the top sides in the pro game growing wider by the year, focusing on a talented young player rather than sticking with a 25+ year old limited player surely has more upside in terms of wage cost and potential ability, if the downside of inexperience is mitigated by putting them alongside senior players in a managed way.
Until that is the case though then a level of mediocrity will continue to hang over Cardiff seasons when internationals are away during Autumn International and Six Nations windows, and young players will either be missed altogether or have their first team impacts unnecessarily delayed.
Organising the development of players and overhauling that layer of the squad behind the internationals has to be high on the agenda for Young, and putting faith in future stars must form a core aspect of that, freeing up wages to build an experienced and quality spine of the squad that are either former internationals or non-Welsh qualified options to bring results and aid development of others.