Cardiff Blues academy manager, Gruff Rees, has reflected on the successful inaugural Celtic Cup campaign.
Cardiff Blues A won three of their six fixtures, and were edged out by Scarlets A at the top of the Welsh conference.
However, Rees was encouraged by the new development platform on offer, and believes it gave some of the Cardiff Blues academy members some invaluable experiences both on-and-off the field.
“The Celtic Cup was very productive for us and is an important step in the development pathway for us, and for the Welsh game in general,” said Rees.
“It provided a genuine need for academy players coming through, in terms of level of competition, and it worked well for us as we mixed with the senior group, with the coaches in particular spending time with the senior coaches.
“It was a good collective environment, where the players were working with their peers. The quality of rugby is something the Welsh Rugby Union have researched heavily, as well as what this competition can give us, against the likes of Leinster, Ulster and the fellow Welsh regions.
“The players have had the benefit of that, and there are countless examples of some of the younger guys like Jamie Hill, Max Llewellyn and Ben Thomas, from the backline, being around people like Dan Fish, Tom James and Steven Shingler.
“That is a great blend, as well as someone like Gethin Jenkins, who had a real coaching benefit from it, was in-and-around the group throughout and getting the odd playing appearance.
“Having the likes of Garyn Phillips, Ben Warren and Will Davies King in the environment, Gethin’s influence will rub off on these boys both on and off the field, especially with the broader responsibilities and how you conduct yourself in the working week.
“It’s an important progression for the players to have and there’s that benefit of having a common language, the routine that goes into training and the consistency around how we defend a line-out, for example.
“There’s areas of real focus for the Cardiff Blues senior group, and that filters through around some of the learning that has to take place and it is easier and more consistent to do that with players on tap, and not having to go externally too often.
“That’s huge for us, and it’s a shame for us that it’s come to a bit of an abrupt end. After seven games, we were starting to find a rhythm from a coaching point-of-view, and for us the calendar will now become different.
“It’s now about managing things a little bit different now that players go into different programmes.
“We will now have different individual plans for every player, and that’s the part of my role that really excites me, rather than the technical and tactical, because we’ve got really good coaches who can support that.
“I look at what fits everyone’s individual progression the best. There are a lot of guys who will be in the Wales under-20 camp this week.
“It’s also about understanding that a lot of them still need games and minutes - people like Corey Howells, Ben Jones and Dane Blacker. We’ll support them and they’ll be involved in club rugby this weekend, which is really important for them at this moment in time.
“Someone like Corey will get some Sevens exposure this season, and he needs that repeatability and get the meters under his belt. He’s someone who could really flourish down the line.
“There are so many different individual strands of the work that applies to every player.”
Rees also emphasised the importance of players’ development away from the rugby pitch, with help from the Welsh Rugby Players Association, which will grow them as people and open doors for life after rugby.
The academy manager said: “We’ve also got educational support, and I’m really big in this role on making sure guys don’t just do rugby and finish at rugby. We have a lot of guys doing university courses, college courses and we have to manage their timetable so they can still flourish educationally.
“We have Ioan Davies down at Cardiff University this year. As well as his Premiership rugby commitments, we’ve got to make the best fit for him so that life isn’t stressful, and it’s built around a good, high performance rugby modules and they can also get their work off the field done.
“Phil from the WRPA has made a significant impact here. With the first team, first of all, and the amount of guys who are occupied educationally away from rugby. That’s huge for the guys in the rugby industry.
“As for academy players coming through, we are encouraging full vocational or educational support, what ever fits those needs.
“A good recent example is someone like Shane Lewis-Hughes, who has always been fully focused on rugby. But Phil has got him working off-the-field around physical training, and educating himself to be a personal trainer, which he’ll be very well suited to.
“It gives them a different outlet away from rugby and it’s really important that they don’t see rugby as a one-stop.
“There’s so many different things they need around their career, but it also makes them better rugby people at the end of the day.”