By Rhys Thomas & Harry Elliott
The negatives: Blues in need of revamp after season of underperformance
Whilst the season ended well enough with a solid seventh place finish in the Guinness PRO12, there were parts of the 2015/16 campaign where Cardiff Blues were significantly below par.
The Blues bowed out of the European Challenge Cup at the group stage, coming third in a group containing Harlequins, Montpellier (both of this year’s finalists) and Italian part-timers Calvisano. Whilst the two finalists came from the same group, the Blues could easily have progressed themselves. Danny Wilson’s side lost both home and away to Harlequins (32-20 and 34-26 respectively) with the Blues in a position to claim a losing bonus point in both games until late Harlequins scores. And they lost 23-22 at Montpellier where a late-injury time converted try for the French side snatched the result away. With Montpellier going through in the runner-up position, only three points clear, it wouldn’t have taken much for the Blues to have progressed to the knock-out stages – better game management perhaps (as seems always the case for Welsh teams in a pressure cooker situation). They surely would have made a strong charge for the Final given their form improved markedly as the season wore on.
Another disappointment was unquestionably the performances of wing, Alex Cuthbert: he has been woeful in Blue and also in the red of Wales. Three years ago he was a British Lion and one of the most lethal finishers in world rugby- now, he’s a shadow of the player he was. Lacking in pace and with too many handling errors, his weak defence has been exposed even more because his positive attributes don’t make up for them. His confidence looks shot, he doesn’t look happy on the field and doesn’t seem to have the right temperament for any game, let alone a big one. Injury means he will not tour New Zealand this Summer with Wales, so having a few months off should be good for him, and hopefully he can rekindle some of that long-lost form come the PRO12 return in September.
The most negative parts of the 2015/16 campaign, however, can be pinpointed to two matches alone, both in Italy. The first, at the end of October last year, was a 26-15 loss to Zebre, and the second in Februrary saw a 13-7 loss to Treviso. Both matches should’ve been guaranteed victories, and practically were for most other teams in the league. If it were not for those two abject losses, the Blues would be able to look forward to playing in the European Champions Cup next season instead of the consolation Challenge Cup. To play as well as they did in parts of the season and then go to Italy and take their eye off the ball was frankly embarrassing and unforgivable.
The positives: Improving performances point to bright future
It’s not all doom and gloom though, and thankfully these negatives can be fixed relatively simply (apart from Mr. Cuthbert). With the performances having improved and the news of exciting new signings coming in for next season, the Blues should realistically be looking at challenging for play-off place in PRO12’s top four.
As has been mentioned, towards the end of the campaign the Blues put on a scintillating run of form which ranks among their best in years. Out of the last 13 PRO12 matches played, the Blues won nine and this hot streak was enough to ensure the Blues were, unlike last season, not the bottom ranked Welsh region. In fact, the run was sufficient to keep top flight European dreams alive until the defeat to Ospreys on penultimate weekend of the season. In the aforementioned rich vein of form, the Blues recorded successes over Edinburgh Rugby, and Irish provinces Ulster and Munster, thus proving that they can mix it with some of the bigger fish of the PRO12 – whom are exactly the sort of sides that Head Coach Danny Wilson will hope to be rubbing shoulders with next year.
There is much to look forward to next year in terms of transfer activity for the capital’s premier rugby side. The exciting and explosive Welsh full back Matthew Morgan is joining from Bristol Rugby, and the 24 year old, with five caps to his name, will add another dimension to an already more than respectable Blues back three. Steven Shingler and George Earle will head east from Llanelli to Cardiff, and, front row forward Rhys Gill has been snared from English side Saracens to add even more Welsh caps to a front row that already includes Gethin Jenkins.
It is not just new faces that give Blues fans reasons to be cheerful going forward, but also the form of some of their stalwarts. In recent weeks Gareth Anscombe reminded us why the departing Rhys Patchell struggled to hold down a first XV spot, and winger, Tom James, also proved why he is one of the nation’s top wide men. I would be doing a disservice to the performances of Lloyd Williams if I were to not mention the scrum half in this review. The 26-year old Cardiff-born player showed what he can do on the world’s biggest stage in the World Cup, but that was of little surprise to Blues’ regulars who see his sniping runs and clever box kicks week in week out. Equally, Dan Fish and Aled Summerhill deserve mentions for consistent displays. They may not gain international recognition, but as club players go, those are two of the best. If these players can continue playing at their optimum level of rugby, the Blues can be quietly confident of usurping the west-Welsh regions.
Speaking of catching the Ospreys and Scarlets, The Blues defeated the European-qualified Scarlets on New Year’s Day in a fantastic Welsh derby at the BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park. A victory over the Ospreys still eludes The Blues though, following a winless streak which now stretches to ten consecutive encounters against the Swansea-based side. Let’s end on some positives however: The Blues have cemented their position as best in the east- above the hapless Newport Gwent Dragons- and this was only Danny Wilson’s first season in charge. It seems he is only at the beginnings of a long-term project. His first season has seen small gains, but gains nonetheless and so there is certainly cause for cautious optimism around the BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park heading in to 2016/17.