Cardiff Blues’ underwhelming 10th place finish in the Guinness Pro 12 marks the first time that Arms Park is host to the lowest ranked Welsh region. Only Italian sides Benetton Treviso and Zebre had worse records over 22 games than the Blues, and serious soul searching and personnel change is required in the post-season. New Zealander Head Coach Mark Hammett left the club in February this year citing personal reasons, and caretakers Dale McIntosh and Paul John took over the reins on an interim basis. Over 30 applicants have put themselves forward and it is now time for the board to decide on the best person to take the Blues forward.
The Blues started the campaign in early September with a routine win away at Zebre. However they would not experience that winning feeling in the league again until 28th November with a laboured 36-25 success over the other Italian side Benetton Treviso. Whilst the Blues did beat Grenoble and Rovigo in the European Challenge cup and edged Newcastle Falcons and Llanelli Scarlets in the LV Cup over this period, they remained winless in the Pro-12. This late November win at Arms Park proved to be a mini-catalyst for the Blues with another win over the Scarlets (this time in the league) and a victory and loss against London Irish in the Challenge Cup. Over the Christmas period the Blues faced arch-rivals Newport Gwent Dragons twice, losing an entertaining Boxing Day clash at Arms Park 17-23, then sneaking the corresponding fixture at Rodney Parade 9-11 courtesy of Corey Allen’s try and the boot of Gareth Anscombe (both from the tee and a drop-goal). Alas, the Blues were to win just three more league games, as things went from bad to worse on and off the pitch.
Hammett’s resignation in February caused a shock to the players to the extent that they were easily beaten by Benetton Trevisio that evening. This was a high point in the history of the Northern Italian club, and equally a low point for the prestigious Cardiff Blues.
Home wins against Edinburgh and a last-gasp result over Connaught did little to mask the Blues’ problems, and before the season ended there were yet more losses – notably away to the Dragons, and over the road at the Millennium Stadium to the Ospreys on “Judgement Day III”.
The final standings show that Blues mustered a measly seven wins from 22 matches, with a solitary draw and fourteen defeats. What makes this record seem even worse is the lack of a real scalp, and poor showings against the other Welsh regions. The Blues did not make it a routine 100% record against the Italian sides, losing away to Treviso, and only notched one win apiece against the Scottish and Irish teams. Add these results to 9-11 win over the Dragons, and the only convincing result the Blues had against a compatriot side was a 21-9 win over Scarlets.
Cup competitions may well be the Blues’ best accolade this season, and that encapsulates the sub-standard year. Whilst the Blues fared better in the European Challenge Cup (the 2nd tier European competition) and the LV Cup; a quarter final loss to, again, the Newport Gwent Dragons and a pool stage exit, despite three out of four wins, can hardly be deemed a great success. Clearly there is a long summer of preparations ahead.
To completely write off the 2014/15 Cardiff Blues season is to do a disservice to players such as Gareth Anscombe, Rhys Patchell and Kristian Dacey. Anscombe and Dacey’s consistent high level performances have earned recognition from Warren Gatland, as they were named in his 2015 RBS Six Nations training squad. Anscombe has been proved effective both at fly-half and full back and in him and Patchell, the Blues have the number 10 jersey covered for the foreseeable future.
It is elsewhere in the squad that Cardiff need to improve, and this could also form part of an explanation for the disappointing season. The Swansea/Neath Ospreys finished in third position, and were the highest ranked Welsh region. Captained by the talismanic Alun Wyn Jones, the Ospreys also boast this season’s league top try scorer in Rhys Webb, joint highest point scorer over the campaign Dan Biggar, and Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric and Scott Baldwin amongst their ranks.
A direct comparison of the Blues and Ospreys squads may be hard reading for diehard Blues fans. The likes of Corey Allen and Alex Cuthbert (when in-form) and Sam Warburton would be the only Cardiff players to walk into starting jerseys for the Ospreys.
Therefore, recruitment is paramount. Adam Jones is moving to Harlequins and, with Matthew Rees being released, only Gethin Jenkins and Scott Andrews remain as internationally experienced front rowers. With Jenkins due to turn 35 in November, it is questionable how much game time the Blues will get out of him in the long term. An addition to the front row would be very beneficial to the Blues.
British and Irish lion Alex Cuthbert refused to sign a dual contract with the WRU and Cardiff Blues in January of this year, leading many to believe he saw his future lying elsewhere, either in France’s Top 14 or the English Premiership. Retaining Cuthbert’s services have been described as “a key aim” by the Blues bigwigs and despite his inconsistency, a player of his calibre must be retained at all costs. Blues have already announced the return of winger Tom James from Exeter Chiefs who will boost the backline.
However, the man who is the Blues’ all-time top try scorer in the Pro-12 has aged by two years since he last pulled on the famous blue and black colours, and James has struggled to break into Exeter’s first team. James cannot be seen as a replacement for Cuthbert, and must be viewed as a squad rotation player to help cope with the vigorous long season.
So where do the Blues go from here? To quote the famous 1980s hit, the only way is up for Cardiff Blues. With investment in the first team and hopefully an encouraging appointment at Head Coach, the club should be aiming to steadily improve. Retaining play-makers like Cuthbert and investing money into the front row is vital, however.
The Blues should also seek to be more clinical in the so-called “easy games” and will be hoping that next season they gain four comfortable wins from Italian opponents. Better results versus the Welsh regions are important too, not only for pride but also league position.
At the very least, the new Head Coach should be aiming to stop the rot, and finish above Newport. Llanelli Scarlets and the Ospreys may be a step too far at the moment, but Wales’ capital should not again be home to the worst Welsh province.