This week, we take a look at the rugby programme at Cardiff University - one of Cardiff Blues’ proud sponsors - who are quickly establishing themselves among the big boys of university rugby.
There has always been a strong relationship between Cardiff University - one of the UK’s leading education establishments - and the capital’s rugby team.
Over the years, a number of prominent rugby heroes have juggled their on-field action with their studies, as they plan for life after rugby.
The likes of Percy Bush, Jamie Roberts, Dr Jack Matthews and Rhys Williams are all alumni of the university, while current stars such as Ellis Jenkins, Ben Thomas, Lloyd Williams, Ioan Davies and Hallam Amos are still hitting the books during their free time away from rugby.
The connection has continued in recent years, with the Cardiff University logo proudly emblazoned on the Cardiff Blues’ first team jerseys for the last few seasons.
Head of rugby, Alan Flowers, is happy with the growth of the relationship between Cardiff Blues and Cardiff University and is confident that the players themselves will be the main beneficiaries of the partnership.
Flowers said: “It’s a very good relationship between Cardiff Blues and Cardiff University, and I have a great relationship with Gruff.
“It’s still building, which is natural, and it’s a part of a bigger picture with what the club is trying to build.
“Our hope is that it’s a relationship that puts the players themselves at the heart of it, and ultimately it’s there to benefit them. It’s very much a player-centred approach when we’ve looked at how we can develop the relationship.
“It’s a key relationship to develop because university rugby now bridges the gap for younger players who are coming through the system.
“We can offer some of Cardiff Blues’ academy players competitive experience of playing in the BUCS Super League, but we’re also able to assist them off the field with a degree from a Russell Group university, which not many universities can do.
“Moving forward, especially with budgets as they are, we’re able to assist in the development of players without the cost to Cardiff Blues and it’s right on the doorstep of the club, of course.
“The Super Rugby is the 10 best university sides in the UK and three of those are from Wales and two from Cardiff, which is great.
“We hope all of the boys in the academy will go on to sign professional contracts, but that’s not the reality.
“So we want to provide a stepping stone as they earn a degree as well, and give these boys an option outside of rugby, should that path not come into fruition. Our priority is looking after these boys as people.
“There is a really important issue at the moment regarding mental health, especially in young men, and giving these boys options and more security in the future is one way we can help towards that.
“Ellis Jenkins and Lloyd Williams have just come on board to do Masters degrees with us in business, so it shows that this relationship doesn’t only benefit young academy players but also players who will be thinking about their exit as well.”
With Cardiff University quickly establishing themselves in the BUCS Super League, a number of players from the Cardiff Blues academy have worn the famous red and black jerseys and gained valuable game time and experience.
Examples of those players include Ioan Davies, Cam Lewis and George Thomas, while Alex Everett has gone the opposite way, representing Cardiff Blues A and Cardiff RFC after impressing for the university.
Another proud graduate of the Cardiff University rugby programme is wing Tom O’Flaherty, who has since gone on to sign for Exeter Chiefs and started in their European Champions Cup final win last month.
Flowers says it’s a proud moment for the university to see players go on and make a name for themselves in top flight rugby: “You’ve got Ioan Davies at the moment, who is studying but has played for us numerous times over the last season or two, and Theo Bevacqua who is just coming in and is held in high regard.
“Teddy Williams and Jake Thomas are also in our university set-up right now and as an university side we’ve had the opportunity to train with the Cardiff Blues first team a number of times and it’s clearly benefitting all parties. We have a high number of current Cardiff Blues under-18 players who could thrive at the University and I know that our alignment with Gruff at the academy could really support them also.
“For our boys, to have the likes of Ellis, Lloyd and other senior players dipping in and holding clinics every now and again is something that they won’t forget and it motivates them as well.
“Something we aspire to as a coaching team is seeing people go from wearing the black and red to wearing the Cardiff Blues colours or even to win international honours. If you can play a small part in that development, it’s really nice to know you’ve been a part of that journey.
“It’s fantastic, and someone like Alex Everett is a proud example for us. He hit a bit of a bump with his injury but was someone who could’ve potentially picked up a regional contract.
“When he came to us, he’d been released from the Saracens academy and was told he’d never be big enough to play professional rugby. But he came onto our programme, and kept in contact with Cardiff and Cardiff Blues, and while one door closed another one opened.
“Hopefully we can continue to produce players, because we’re now competing at a high standard from week-to-week. The league is now producing more and more professional contracts, and boys like Sebastian Negri, Stephen Varney, Jake Polledri, Luke Northmore and Alex Dombrandt are a great advert for university rugby.”
While the annual Varsity match against Swansea will remain the pinnacle for Cardiff University, with games played at Principality Stadium and Liberty Stadium, the BUCS Super League’s inter-reigonal derby against Cardiff Met has also become an important fixture in the calendar.
With the games usually played at the Arms Park, Flowers is delighted that the iconic stadium has already played host to memorable evenings for everyone involved: “It’s a city with great history with both its university and its rugby and there is potential to make this a brilliant relationship.
“We can be a good reason to attract people to stay and study in Cardiff, rather than looking for opportunities across the bridge.
“If you look at those games against Cardiff Met at the Arms Park, you’re looking at around 5,000 people watching at both events. That makes it a great experience for players, staff and fans alike, as well as being beneficial for the city as a whole.
“We want to make those two inter-city derbies an annual event, and the more momentum it picks up, the more we could fill the stadium.
“We’ve really enjoyed those games and we’re hoping we can make special nights like that a regular throughout the season.
“It’s still growing, but would obviously take a long time to reach the peaks of the Varsity match with Swansea every year.
“But at that age, it’s great to run out to crowds like that, with great atmosphere, especially when that crowd is your own peers. It’s a good event for everyone.”