Blues raise the bar in more ways than one
April 22, 2009
Cardiff Blues skipper Paul Tito lifts the Anglo-Welsh Cup after his side's romp against Gloucester © Getty Images
It says something about raised expectations in Wales that 2008-9 may be remembered in some quarters as a disappointing season.
Three wins out of five in the Six Nations might have been two down on last year, but it has been bettered only three times in the last 21 seasons. Thirteen Lions is, even allowing for larger tour parties, the most significant representation since 1977. There was also the triumph in the Rugby World Cup Sevens.
And then, last Saturday, the spectacular display produced by Cardiff Blues in the Anglo-Welsh Cup Final. Reactions to their 50-12 demolition of Gloucester were a reminder of how subjective even those of us who are paid to be supposedly objective analysts can be.
If you are English, or writing for a London paper, it was all about Gloucester's latest and most violent attack of Twickophobia. If you are Welsh, it was a brilliant all-round performance by Cardiff.
You would need to be a particularly partisan occupant of the Shed not to have appreciated, in particular, Cardiff's second try - a dazzling interchange of passes and switching angles that had echoes of vintage Toulouse.
Martyn Williams produced a definitive display of creative open-side play. Leigh Halfpenny timed his reminder to the Lions selectors as perfectly as his incursions for two superbly constructed and taken tries. Gethin Jenkins remains one of the wonders of the rugby world, a fine scrummaging prop with the hands and attacking instincts of a centre.
To watch this in the company of perhaps the greatest of all Cardiffians, Bleddyn Williams, and to enjoy with him rugby played as he and his contemporaries in their brilliant post-war teams once played it, was a particular privilege. All this, and a Heineken semi-final at the Millennium Stadium to come.
Compare and contrast this with the fate of the franchise 40 miles down the road, the Ospreys. Both got six men into the Lions squad (the Ospreys Welsh quintet supplemented by Tommy Bowe), but that's about as far as the similarities go.
A year ago it was the Ospreys who were dazzling Twickenham, comprehensively dismantling Leicester in the 2008 Anglo-Welsh Final. But not a lot has gone right since. The truly sad element in their disintegration in the Heineken quarter-final at Munster was that it was so utterly predictable. They have regressed as the Blues have prospered.
Sporting success is elusive and ephemeral, often turns on fractions and rarely has a single cause or explanation. One element, though, in the divergence between Blues and Ospreys this year looks to be the way they have handled coaching appointments.
That performance at Twickenham was a credit not only to Dai Young but to the Cardiff management - not least Peter Thomas - who have kept faith with him through a tough and sometimes thankless apprenticeship and been rewarded for their loyalty.
A lot of us would have lost patience, concluded that it wasn't going to happen, and looked for a new coach. We'd have been wrong (although Dai might still have benefited from a longer spell as an assistant before being thrown in as head coach) and they have been proved resoundingly right.
Compare this with the Ospreys who decided last year that Lyn Jones had gone as far as he could. They put his assistant Sean Holley in charge, while making it very clear that they really did not think he was the answer, and conducting an extremely public search for a high-profile alternative.
I must admit to being biased in Holley's favour. I first met him a decade or so ago as tutor on a pioneering rugby studies programme at Llanelli College and feel the rather proprietorial interest one takes in people you met - and were impressed by - before they rose to prominence.
Perhaps he isn't up to it, but the circumstances under which he has operated this season have given him responsibility without power. Perhaps it did not help that he was not a top-rank player, merely a lower division outside-half. But is the ability to coach peculiarly the preserve of those who have also played exceptionally well?
London Irish's performances under Toby Booth - a low-profile deputy shown the faith that the Ospreys management evidently lacked in Holley - suggest otherwise.
Now the Ospreys role falls to Scott Johnson. Leaving aside his much-debated role in Mike Ruddock's downfall, there is a serious question as to whether his undoubted talents are those of an assistant, rather than head coach.
Alun Carter's intriguing memoir of his time as Wales's analyst 'Seeing Red' leaves no doubt of Johnson's ability as an attack coach but also paints him as self-dramatising and destabilising - hardly the qualities of a man with whom the buck must ultimately stop.
Perhaps he is the answer, and in a year's time the rugby world will be hailing the Ospreys as it now acclaims Cardiff. But the Ospreys' handling of their head coach role leaves serious doubts as to whether they have been asking the right questions.