A Bright Future Awaits
By Cardiff Steve
April 18 2018
Saturday sees Cardiff Blues entertain Pau in a European semi-final. Here's a reminder of how the team has arrived at this point.
Since the signing of the Rugby Services Agreement in 2014, Welsh Rugby has been going through a re-building phase. Off the field, there is no longer open warfare between the 4 Pro teams, represented by Pro Rugby Wales (PRW) and the WRU.
Where once there was talk only of confrontation and mistrust, the language is now of co-operation and of partnership. Right from the start of Martyn Phillips and Gareth Davies’ tenure, there was recognition that change needed to occur, from the bottom of the game right to the top.
Although there is still some way to go before things are at optimum level, there are definite signs that Regional Rugby is on an upward curve. The presence of two Welsh sides in European semi-finals on the weekend provides a snapshot of that progress.
Strength through Diversity
Tickets for Cardiff Blues’ game against Section Paloise on Saturday afternoon are selling fast. There are of course those who say this is “only” a Challenge Cup” semi-final, but that would be churlish towards fans and the team itself who have experienced a torrid few years.
At various times this season, there were many who believed the future of the team was in grave danger. You had the Franco van De Merwe “non-signing”. Peter Thomas’ reckless leaking of the news that he would be offering the team to the WRU for a baby-sitting period, having said that he was no longer willing to fund the team to the same degree. Then the uncertainty regarding negotiations with the Cardiff Athletic Club over the lease, was hardly the backdrop the team would have wanted for a successful season.
When you consider that Danny Wilson is also leaving at the end of the season, its something of a surprise that the Blues are where they are today. Although the path through the competition to this point so far wasn’t without a serious hiccough at Sale, the Blues have shown a remarkable resilience.
Progress through the Group Stage
Challenge Cup Rugby can be seen as something of a non-entity by some. But it was obvious that throughout the Group Stage, Danny Wilson’s men saw this as something of an opportunity. One of Wilson’s stated aims when he took over nearly three years ago, was to get the Blues back into Champions Cup Rugby.
Obviously, doing it through League position would have been the preferred option, but winning this competition may have offered another way. You could also see how Wilson was providing young players valuable experience, that would hold them in good stead for the future.
The first side selected to play Lyon, provided an excellent blend of youth and experience. The likes of Seb Davies, Jarrod Evans and Corey Domachowski, were joined by Matthew Rees, Alex Cuthbert and Blaine Scully, and the result against the Top14 leaders at the time was a real boost to the team.
Off the back of a convincing derby win against the Dragons on the previous weekend, the Blues made 11 changes to their starting XV and got away to a flyer, winning 29-19.
Intriguingly, the next opponents were Toulouse, whom Cardiff Blues met in the first ever Heineken Cup final and the preceding week on social media was punctuated by some mutual appreciation between the two teams.
It was the Blues who emerged victorious with a 15-17 win, the first time since that final, where the home side had not won. Besides the win, there were other reasons for positivity in these two European games.
Pattern Developing Across Competitions
First of all, the manner in which Cardiff were trying to approach their rugby. Offensively, it was obvious that the team were looking to play rugby. It’s not often the Blues score four tries. But against the Dragons and then Lyon they had come away with winning Try Scoring bonus points.
In defence, the influence of Sean Edwards was becoming evident. Although there were occasions where the team slipped up – the next game against Sale a case in point – the manner in which the team were going about their business was positive.
And most pleasing of all, was the contribution of the young players who had come through the Regional Pathway, aided and abetted by the more experienced heads. Danny Wilson had been clever in both competitions in the way he had rotated the squad, and this was certainly paying off.
A minor set-back
The second block of games didn’t begin too well. The Blues entered a tough away fixture against Sale having suffered a 16-40 reverse to Glasgow in their previous League game and were experiencing a tricky period of the season. But it was the manner of their defeat, in horrible conditions that was something of a worry.
But, the return fixture at the Arms Park saw a 14-6 win for Cardiff. Entering the last block of matches against the two French sides, the team’s destiny was essentially in its own hands.
In the Challenge Cup at that stage, Cardiff had won 8 from 9 games against Top 14 sides, and it was to become 10 from 11 with an away win against Tolouse and a home win against a full-strength Lyon to round off the group stage.
Both victories reflected how much spirit the team had built during the time Danny Wilson has been at the Arms Park. Against Lyon, for instance, it took just 24 seconds for Wilson’s men to go behind, but the Blues never faltered from the task.
And so to the quarter final. There was some trepidation before the trip to Edinburgh, as Richard Cockerill had begun to stamp his own brand of “attitude” on the Scots’ own “Capital City” team. But the worries were unfounded as the team left Edinburgh with an emphatic 20-6 victory.
The Blues and the fans enter Saturday’s game full of hope and not a little expectation. It’s maybe too sentimental to say that there is an element of “Do it for Danny” about the team since Wilson’s departure was announced.
There is no doubt though that this season has seen the team make huge strides on the field, despite the off-field troubles. There is nothing to say that Cardiff can not book their place in Bilbao this Saturday. It would be even better if they were to be joined by the Scarlets following their own semi-final in Dublin.
The much-maligned Regional game in Wales is indeed stirring itself once again. A full-house at the Arms Park is a sight to behold and as the Scarlets have proved, success can just be the beginning for a team desperate to learn and constantly seeking to improve.
The good times are on their way back. I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing the team all the best for Saturday and the future.