Mid-table Purgatory; Hard Truths: What’s Wrong with Cardiff Blues

Cardiff Blues

Cardiff Blues’ Director of Rugby, John Mulvihill, has left his role six months prior to its planned three-year expiry. The region shiftily cited “personal reasons”. Dai Young, original Blues coach, has returned as interim Director of Rugby. Blues are stalled in fourth place, having won five of eleven games in the Guinness Pro14 this season. In their first game without an elected head coach, they beat Scarlets in their best performance of the season. Whilst the highs and lows of the region are extreme, they balance out to leave them stuck in mid-table purgatory, wondering how they got there. There are some answers to that thought.

Club and Country

All decisions start at the top and the consequences trickle down to the bottom. In sport, there’s nothing bigger than playing for club and country. But what do you do when your country’s skint? Wales is a small country with a slim budget for its four regions. Resources are spread thin and primarily focused on feeding the national team: needs must for a compact country. Tight budgets mean limited signings. As a result, the quality of rugby drops and fewer players develop to a high enough level. As is now apparent, poor club performances eventually catch up to the national team. A merger of the clubs was proposed in 2019 but it created such a plethora of issues talks broke down. It has left Welsh rugby and its regions vying for money and cutting deals that mean players appear more often for their country than their club.

Money isn’t everything but limited funding renders a team immobile. It’s universal across sports that to be successful a team needs money and to have money you need to be successful. Unless investors are willing to take a punt on an underperforming club (as happened with Exeter and Saracens) with potential, clubs are stuck in mid-table purgatory. Blues aren’t a region with potential for investors. They’re a capital region that doesn’t own its ground or fill its 12,000 seats. Their regional absorption of clubs and focus on the Blues brand has alienated local fans in the surrounding areas. Similar scenarios unfolded for the other regions. Lack of money and revenue-creating fans has been the reality since they became regions, so if it’s not going to change, the Welsh clubs need to reinvigorate themselves with what money they have. That leads us onto the next rung in the ladder: boards and coaches.

Boards and Bureaucracy for Blues

For every professional sports team, as a financial and business enterprise, the board of investors, directors and beneficiaries control the money. The amount of money they give affects what quality of coach and players a club can attract, therefore affecting the overall performance of the team every season. But the impression given off by the Blues is that the board are overbearing, regularly interfering with coaching decisions. Red flags are thrown up when former chairman Peter Thomas, AKA Peter Pies, personally wrote off £12.5 million of loans amassed during a 23-year stint when he stepped down in February 2020. He moved into a different role as Life President without voting shares. It’s questionable whether his lack of voting shares has truly affected his influence on the decision making and culture, which he had been part of for almost a quarter of a century.

When Mulvihill’s predecessor, Danny Wilson, left at the end of the 2017-2018 season after rejecting a contract renewal, he stated he was ‘disappointed to leave the group’ but had made his decision ‘long ago for a number of reasons’. He further alluded to board-related issues by saying ‘it was never about the playing group, it was never about the rugby environment. It was based on other reasons and now’s not the time to talk about that.’ Excerpts from Matthew Rees’s autobiography during Mark Hammett’s six-month stint as head coach further indicate that the board and especially Peter Thomas were involved in player-coach disputes regularly. One anecdote detailed the players and Rees going direct to Peter Thomas after a dispute over a fining system the team had in place.

In one cloak and dagger sitting, Blues announced that Mulvihill had left whilst Young had taken over. It was mentioned Mulvihill hadn’t seen his daughters for some time, but it seems obvious the region wanted a new coach for the new year based on performance issues. The tight-lipped nature of the preceding’s was seedy. The roots of bureaucracy might run deeper than any coach can handle.

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Blues Need a Head Coach

Does any head coach need them? Ascending to head coach is a promotion, a career step to greater successes but any coach considering the role must hesitate at the reputation of the board, limited finances and the decade-long, mid-table curse upon the club. Former Wales and Blues fly-half Ceri Sweeney called Dai Young a ‘shrewd operator who will not just jump at the chance but have a good look’ at the position first. He might be correct as Young has signed on as the interim Director of Rugby, without committing long-term. Young lost his job as head coach of Wasps last February and might be keeping his hand in the professional coaching scene until a more lucrative position opens up. If he isn’t and he decides to commit to the Blues, he could be excellent.

Blues need a steady head coach with a clear management style. Along with that, they need an outright and separate attack coach and defence coach. Over the years they’ve promoted and hired coaches that weren’t absolute head coaches and the results have been shaky. But now, with Ulster’s Dwayne Peel joining as attack coach next season and Richard Hodges already established as defence coach, all they need is a strong head honcho. Peel’s Ulster has scored the most points, made the most offloads and are second only to Leinster in tries scored, defenders beaten, metres gained and clean breaks. Under Hodge’s guidance Blues has topped the charts in tackles made, tackle success and are second in turnovers won. Those stats may be flattering since they’ve had to defend so much but at the start of the season, the Blues defence was exceptional.

Attack, Attack, Attack

Danny Wilson developed an attack-based side that was frustratingly poor without the ball but incredibly dangerous with it. Whilst they finished in mid-table during both seasons, the coaches, players and fans seemed to understand the game plan. No matter how many tries they had shipped against a team, they were never down and out if they had the ball. Mulvihill joined and seemed to want to capitalise on the ball-in-hand culture that was already there and that he shared with his Super Rugby roots. The squad’s style didn’t develop and seemed to over adjust toward defence this season. The switch rendered them a team without an identity and they were bewildered, frustrated and would eventually implode as they overplayed and forced games.

As the match against Scarlets showed last weekend, the Young-Peel-Hodge trifecta doesn’t have an extreme amount of work to do when they officially arrive. The forwards showed that they can attack the gain line, up-and-unders and defending rucks, whilst the lineout and scrums were steady. With a platform and free reign, the backs showed their attacking style scoring three attractive tries. The Blues can continue to play their attacking brand, so long as its first set up by the forwards. A strong forward pack has been missing all the time the Blues have been mid-table.  That’s where the focus needs to go.

Tight-Fives and Backlines

As a former international front-row player and English Premiership coach, Young should know the importance of the forward pack. After all, there are more forwards than backs in a team. But for years Blues have invested in a star-studded backline to the detriment of the pack. They may have signed Cory Hill and Rhys Carré this season but they also picked up Hallam Amos, Josh Adams and came close to getting Nick Tompkins too. That’s in addition to the backline they already have which includes the mercurial pairing of Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans at nine and ten, quick-stepping Willis Halaholo and Samoan international Ray Lee-lo at centre and Wales probable, Owen Lane on the wing. They’ve also got overcrowding in the back row, with Ellis Jenkins and Josh Navidi returning from injury soon.

Whilst Carré, Dillon Lewis, Hill and Seb Davies are solid players, they’re missing during the international windows and injury-periods. During those periods, it becomes apparent just how underdeveloped the Blues are in the tight-five, relying on academy players for debuts and dropping them when they’re done. They need a dearth of bulky, hard-hitting tight-five players to set the platform for 80 minutes more than they need a rugby ball to play with if they’re to compete. That may have to come at the cost of some dead-weight if they’re to avoid sinking. Rumours of 34-year-old Rhys Priestland joining is a worrying sign that times haven’t changed. Since there’s no permanent head coach at the helm, it smells like the board’s financially driven idea of a marquee signing.

Blue Moon

After Danny Wilson announced his departure midway through the 2018 season, Blues went on to win the Challenge Cup after a seventh-place finish in the league. They find themselves in a similar position now, the Scarlets game hinting at an upturn in fortune. They still have a Challenge Cup to play for and four months to prepare for the Rainbow Cup but it all means nothing if the board doesn’t step back and allow the coaches to create a strong, 80-minute pack. On and off the field, stability in the most powerful places is what will allow the Blues to escape their mid-table purgatory, and ascend to a better place.

N.B.

You just know there’s a juicy tell-all chapter in a player’s autobiography about the Blues board waiting to come out. When a senior player retires in a few years, perhaps. My money’s on Scott Andrews if he gets a book deal.

 

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