As a Cardiff Blues fan, this is an opinion piece on current events at the club, the loss of Gareth Anscombe to the Ospreys, current recruitment and looking to next season. Take a deep breath as a rant is incoming!
As we know Welsh club rugby is going through challenges around finances and trying to compete with its peers around Europe. This is undoubtedly the case when it comes to the team I have followed Cardiff Blues.
Last week after a loss to Connacht which seriously jeopardises them competing in the top tier of European club rugby, The Heineken Champions Cup next season, which also brings with it finances such as TV revenue, news also broke that Gareth Anscombe, the Welsh fly-half had finally made his decision around where his playing career would continue. That decision was that Gareth would be leaving Cardiff Blues after five seasons and moving onto the Ospreys, a Welsh side, who only three months ago seemed to be on the verge of becoming extinct as a standalone side.
There has been a lot of conversations held over the reason why he ultimately made that decision, was it down to finances? Could Ospreys offer more and were Cardiff Blues struggling to meet his demands? Was it the opportunity to work with Matt Sherratt, the ex-Cardiff Blues coach, who now coaches at the Ospreys? Or was it down to Gareth buying more into the playing group and plans in place at the Ospreys? It could be that all these areas played into his final decision, but whatever the reason then it throws up some challenges to the Cardiff Blues and what moves they now make in terms of recruitment, retaining players, very interesting indeed.
With Anscombe moving on, then the player who undoubtedly will wear the number 10 shirt regularly will be Jarrod Evans. Jarrod is a very talented player, and even with Anscombe playing, often Cardiff Blues would take the option of playing Evans at 10 and Anscombe at 15, so a twin playing threat from the first receiver, which has worked very well. If Evans is unavailable next season, then it would appear that the alternative options will be Matthew Morgan, Dan Fish or one of two youngsters on the books, Ben Thomas or Ben Jones.
My concern is that if Evans is not playing, then who picks up the goalkicking? Morgan and Fish have never been regular kickers at this level, and Thomas (who I see as more of a twelve) and Jones are untried at this level. The decision of Steven Shingler to leave the club mid-season now looks even more puzzling. Appreciate the player had little game time this season, but you would hope the player and the club without knowing the decision Anscombe was going to make at that point would be able to have a discussion and stay on for a few more months until a decision was made.
Shingler is a consistent player at either the ten or twelve positions and more crucially is a proven goal kicker at this level. He left to join Stade Montois, in the French second division until the end of the season and will then join Ealing and with those options I would like to think rightly or wrongly the player and the club could have had positive talks to keep him on until at least the end of this season and maybe even beyond.
From my perspective, recruitment for the Cardiff Blues for several years has not gone to plan. Finances being as restrictive as they are, when you do spend decent money, then you have to get it right. It has not happened often enough. Players who comparable in wages with others have come into the side to aid the progression of the club have not hit the heights that expectations would have hoped. Some examples of this include Salesi Maa’fu and Samu Manoa, both internationals who were brought to the side to provide much-needed power in an underpowered front five but neither delivered. Currently, another front five forward, Dmitri Arhip who has been at the club for a season, has also had challenges.
Arhip joined from the Ospreys after a high profile move to Montpellier fell through due to some injury concerns. Arhip has struggled to put a run of games together in his first season due to injuries, so let’s hope next season those injuries go away and we see the Dmitri Arhip who during his spell with the Ospreys was one of the best tighthead props in the League.
In the above paragraph, I have mentioned players from the front five, and for me, that is the area that concerns me for next season, not so much the position that Anscombe has now vacated. In recent seasons Cardiff Blues have lost from the front five players due to retirement, of the quality of Taufa’ao Filise and Gethin Jenkins, two outstanding props. This season they have also lost the highly talented Rhys Carre to Saracens. Carre has enormous potential so is a real loss. Also, at the end of this season due to retirement, Matthew Rees will be hanging up the boots on a fantastic career. Rees and his playing style is precisely the type of player Cardiff Blues need right now. Hugely physical, a ball carrier and a strong scrummager, so to lose him to retirement is a real blow.
The props and hookers for next season as it stands is Rhys Gill (future unclear for next season, but I understand he will sign a new contract), Brad Thyer, Corey Domachowski, Kristian Dacey, Ethan Lewis, Kirby Myhill, Liam Belcher, Dmitri Arhip, Dillon Lewis, Kieron Assiratti and Scott Andrews. Some decent players but under strengthed in my view.
The second row worries me even more. I understand that there are doubts over George Earle playing for Cardiff Blues next season. Earle is a player that when fit, is one of the few hard-nosed, uncompromising locks at the club. He does a lot of work in the tight, in the close quarters, carrying a few yards, cleaning out rucks, etc., so if he does indeed leave with the personnel in that area, yet another loss.
Current locks for next season as I understand it is Seb Davies (a real talent, but please keep him at lock, not eight), Rory Thornton, James Down and then two players who are primarily back rowers but have stepped up to lock many times, Macauley Cook and Josh Turnbull. Both players are undersized in my view to play lock regularly, especially if your pack is not to the highest standard thus struggling in the set piece. I am unsure if Ben Murphy who is currently at Merthyr RFC has a contract with the Cardiff Blues for next season. He is young and raw so now may not be ready for the step up. Another player who is plying his trade in Welsh Premier League rugby who I feel has the potential to step up is Callum Bradbury who is playing for Cardiff RFC. Bradbury is a natural lock, plays with a bit of an edge and looks a talent. Whether next season may be too early to step up for the Cardiff Blues but with what is available right now then needs must.
I do find the recent recruitment at the club somewhat baffling. Finances at the club are known to be challenging, yet even before Anscombe had decided on his future, the club announced the signings of two international back three players with Josh Adams and Hallam Amos joining for next season. Both are excellent players, so their abilities I do not doubt for one minute. However, why is Cardiff Blues spending good money when finances are tight, on two players who play in positions, i.e. full back and wing where if you look at the makeup of the squad there are already players who have performed well this season and last.
Players such as Matthew Morgan, Owen Lane, Jason Harries, and Aled Summerhill. Adams and Amos are excellent players as I have already said but did both need to be recruited when other areas need strengthening more? Like this season, the backline is more than capable of scoring tries, but if the forwards were able to provide a more consistent platform, then there is no doubt Cardiff Blues would be a far more competitive proposition.
Another piece of recruitment that confuses me is the potential signing of Will Boyde from the Scarlets. Again, as per my point around Adams and Amos, I do not doubt Boyde’s playing ability, he is a very talented back row player who can play across all three positions, and a lot of Scarlets fans are angry that he is leaving their club. Cardiff Blues though have a number of back row players of real talent such as Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, Nick Williams, Ollie Robinson, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Macauley Cook, Josh Turnbull and young emerging talent in the form of James Botham and Alun Lawrence, therefore picking up a player such as Boyde and his salary is it necessary? Even with international duty taking away players such as Jenkins and Navidi and potentially Turnbull there is adequate cover in place.
Cardiff Blues undoubtedly could do with some support for Nick Williams at eight as a ball carrying, physical presence, but Boyde is not that type of player. I would argue his best position is at seven, indeed a few seasons ago at Cardiff Arms Park he was excellent playing in the seven shirt and Cardiff Blues have many options already to wear that shirt to high levels of performance.
Next week, Cardiff Blues play the Ospreys with the winner gaining a play-off place to try to achieve the final slot in The Heineken Champions Cup. Whether Cardiff Blues select the Ospreys bound Gareth Anscombe for this game is a decision for the coaches to make. However, if Cardiff Blues do get the victory and then go on to play in the top tier European competition, then without any further recruitment in the pack then I fear they could be on the end of some heavy losses against some of the top European sides. I appreciate the financial side of being in that competition, but I do wonder until the recruitment strategy is resolved whether a season or two in the second tier European competition may long term have a more positive effect on the club.
In closing, I wish Gareth Anscombe best wishes for his new club next season. Obviously, I am disappointed in his decision but has been a fine player for Cardiff Blues and I am sure he will continue to be for the Ospreys and for Wales. Thank you, Gareth and we will always have that memory of that kick in Bilbao.
Also, I would like to wish Matthew Rees all the best in his retirement from professional rugby. Matthew has been an outstanding player and has played at the top level of rugby union for twenty years, an incredible achievement. Matthew has overcome many challenges and if you would like to read his story, then I would recommend buying his book “Reasons 2 Smile” which covers off his great career. A shameless plug by yours truly as I worked closely with Matthew on the book which is something I feel really honored to have done.