Gruff Rees says a special group of players and staff have can be proud of the way they’ve represented Cardiff Rugby at Europe’s top table over the past fortnight.
It is well-documented that Cardiff were without a total of 42 players for the European double-header due a combination of injuries, suspension but mostly the quarantine following the recent URC trip to South Africa.
However, a squad consisting of senior internationals, academy youngsters and semi professional players went toe-to-toe against both the European and English champions over the past fortnight.
Despite ultimately suffering two defeats, the Blue and Blacks’ free-flowing, entertaining performances in adversity were inspiring, drawing plenty of plaudits and support from the wider rugby community.
The likes of Theo Cabango, Cameron Winnett and Jacob Beetham were shining stars as they took their first steps into professional rugby.
And for the youngsters who impressed, Rees emphasises that rugby is often down to sliding doors moments as he hopes their Heineken Champions Cup experiences will benefit their development.
The academy manager said: “Playing this game certainly wasn’t something that was a given early in the week. We were pretty battered and bruised and we did wonder how we were going to back up a pretty physical effort last week.
“We did that and enjoyed our rugby for the most part. 55 to 60 minutes we were well in it.
“We got held up over the line but credit to Harlequins because they squeezed us and we were punched out.
“We were trying to play catch up then with the bench coming on, and a few youngsters there, so we got a bit stretched.
“Overall it’s been a great couple of weeks for the club playing in this competition, and playing good rugby in this competition.
“We had a mix of players you’d never have thought of four to six weeks ago.
“We’ve come from many different backgrounds but developmentally it’s been brilliant.
“For our academy boys to be around the seniors and playing top level rugby with them. The back three players to play with the likes of Josh Adams and Rey Lee-Lo is a constant learning experience.
“But they’ve also done themselves justice in terms of the performances they put together.
“Credit to everyone behind the scenes in the club - we are aligned and been able to capitalise on a tricky situation.
“It’s not what we would’ve wanted in terms of South Africa, but we got on with it and we’re quite happy.
“These younger players are on our succession plan and myself and Dai speak on a regular basis.
“This has accelerated that but we’ll still take it slow and steady with their development. Physically there’s a lot we need to do over the next months.
“Rugby is often about sliding doors moments and some probably could’ve done stuff in the pro game.
“It’s been underlined by a senior group who have been really positive and embraced what we’ve tried to do.
“It would’ve been easy for them to come off the internationals and seen this as a hindrance.
“But they saw it as an opportunity for them to grow as well.”
Having recently retired, centurion and cult hero Dan Fish also returned to the fold, facing off against England’s Marcus Smith at outside half at Twickenham Stoop.
But the fan favourite impressed with his box of tricks and flicks, with the likes of Will Greenwood, David Flatman and Tom Shanklin singing his praise in the aftermath.
However, with the homegrown talent now part of the academy’s coaching team, Rees is excited to see the influence he’ll have on the next generation of Blue and Blacks.
Rees added: “Fishy will retire again now but I’m sure he’ll be on the field again next week for Cardiff RFC.
“Today was a testament to him in terms of what he can do, stepping in there and creating trust and cohesion.
“From my end, he’s an academy coach and is a really talented, young coach as well.
“We’re mindful in terms of trying to develop him long term as a coach.
“You can’t take away from the fact that he’s a unique man and sees the game brilliantly.
“His influence rubs off on the people he’s around on a constant basis.
“As a proper Cardiffian, we should embrace that and enjoy having around, in whatever capacity.”