It’s been interesting to note the inspiration that Cardiff’s model of using the Rags as the club’s proper second XV has provided other clubs this season.
Looking west down the M4 and the Ospreys have notably used Swansea as a vehicle to give their Academy and first team players game time, while the Scarlets have properly started to utilise Llanelli in a similar manner, getting their future stars playing together in a managed environment and integrating their training schedules to suit that.
However, to this point the success that the Rags have had results-wise have not yet followed, with Swansea down in 8th and Llanelli further behind, albeit with games in hand, in 10th.
Now this of course can be put down to the fact that this is their first seasons with this system in place. Previously Academy players were more evenly shared with the likes of Bridgend, Aberavon, Carmarthen and Llandovery, but now with one club the focus there will be adjustments and teething issues to overcome.
Beyond that though there is also, from where I’m sitting at least, the fact that Cardiff continue to sign and integrate some of the best semi-professionals in Wales, installing a quality spine to the side around which Academy players can develop and fringe first team players can stay fit and look to impress the first team coaches.
Many of those semi-professionals are good quality young players who have either recently been released by other Academies or who have caught the eye at other Premiership sides or in the lower leagues. They are then backed up by experienced former professionals or long time semi-professionals who act as leaders both on and off the pitch.
One of those who was signed last summer and has made an instant impact is Arron Pinches; someone who perhaps hasn’t garnered the headlines of a Morgan Allen or a Dewi Cross, but has been absolutely vital to all the good stuff that the Rags have produced so far this season.
The 34-year-old has played in 13 of 15 games across the Premiership and Welsh Cup so far this season, nailing down that 12 jersey as Harrison James has largely had to operate at fly-half while Ioan Evans and Ryan Wilkins have been sidelined by long-term injury.
After many years at this level, with a career spanning spells at Llanharan, Tamworth, Birmingham-Moseley, Bedwas, Neath and then a long stint at Merthyr where he made over 100 appearances, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the centre perhaps didn’t have the fire in the belly still needed to train twice a week after work and then play at 100% every Saturday.
Evidentially that is as far from the case for Pinches as can be. Defensively he has been a rock with a league leading 10 dominant tackles as he brings a physical edge to a defence that seems to pride itself on the pressure it puts on the opposition in open play rather than targeting the breakdown in the same way the first team do.
That’s not to say there’s any passivity in the tackle area though, with the Cardiff man also leading the league in counter-ruck attempts, the majority of which come after his own completed tackles as he fails to be satisfied with simply stopping an opposing ball carrier.
It’s in attack where Pinches has arguably been most valuable to the Rags though, bringing a physicality and directness that has been important for an attack that has wandered perilously laterally in games over the last few years.
He thrives coming short off 9 or 10, taking on contact and driving over the gain line in a route one style, but has the added danger of some smart footwork and a strong fend that can open up outside channels, turning defenders inside out and creating line breaks from seemingly a nothing phase.
That threat, especially when working in conjunction with Dan Fish, lays a platform for the likes of Cross, Joe Goodchild and Cam Winnett to show off their quality in the space created. As a result it’s no surprise that Cardiff are comfortably the top scorers in the Premiership so far, averaging 35 points per game in the league.
Exactly how the player recruitment model works for the Blue and Blacks is unknown, whether it’s Steve Law concentrating on the semi-pros while Gruff Rees manages the Academy players, or a teamwork approach between the two. Whichever way it is, it’s working brilliantly, as a signing like Arron Pinches shows.
Developing young players is, of course, vitally important and a major objective for the Rags in this system, but winning games is also a key aim within that and the likes of the 34-year-old are big reasons that success is being seen in both areas.