Cardiff Blues under-18 joint head coach, Craig Everett, has reflected on a hugely successful Regional Age Grade Championship campaign, which saw Wales’ Capital Region lifting the title for the first time since 2016.
However, it is the development benefits, rather than silverware, that has made the pathway coaches proud of the campaign, with more than 50 players from the region having experience of playing regional rugby at this level.
Everett believes all players involved over the course of the season will improve as both rugby players and people following their time in the system, and he insists the future looks bright for Cardiff Blues’ regional pathway.
“It was really pleasing for the boys who stepped up, and they really took their opportunity,” said Everett.
“From a Cardiff Blues under-18 point-of-view, we’ve had a bigger squad this season and have wanted to be fair to all those boys by giving them opportunities and rotate the squad throughout the season.
“Those were the boys that were always going to play in this game, and it was pleasing to see them stepping up, sticking to the system and the result came on the back of that.
“We’ve got the biggest region in terms of population, and therefore there is a lot of players with huge potential. No one would benefit if we were narrow minded and stuck to the same 23 players.
“Winning trophies and having the experience of picking up silverware gives these boys superb memories, there’s no doubt about that. But as a system we can be more proud of the number of boys that have benefitted their development through Cardiff Blues.
“We wanted to give as many boys an experience of playing regional rugby at this level and more than 50 boys from the region have gone on to play in the Championship this year, including six boys who have gone on to represent other regions.
“That’s really pleasing, and having a player pool that big at this level makes the future looks really good for the region at a senior level.
“Not every rugby player is going to go on to become professional. Our job is to do the best we can in ensuring these boys are better when they level our programme. That’s true whether they go on to play in the Premiership, for a university or for a local club.
“They’ve had the experience of coming through a regional age grade programme and hopefully we’ve given them the best possible experience at this moment in time, and I think they’ve had a brilliant year.
“We don’t want to be over-reliant on boys who are in the second year of under-18 rugby. I understand that’s their time, but at one stage on Tuesday, we had 13 boys on the field who were in their first year at this level.
“That’s incredible for us going into next year, but we’ve also got really strong North and South under-16 sides, and they can add to our current pool. It’s looking promising for next year as well.”
Cardiff Blues’ bonus point win over Scarlets at Sardis Road ensured they would lift the trophy on the final day of Championship action.
Everett was pleased with the maturity his side showed when under pressure and believes their hunger and work rate paved the way for victory.
“It’s an old cliche, but it was definitely a game of two halves. We started really well, and every time we were in the Scarlets’ half we managed to cause them stress in defence.
“But we couldn’t get a positive outcome from kick offs, and in fairness to Scarlets they put us under pressure in our 22 and kept chipping away on the scoreboard after we made errors.
“They came out and kept us in our half for big periods of the second half, but the pleasing thing to see was that the boys didn’t panic and didn’t fold to it.
“We waited for a momentum shift, we had a control and got the two tries to put us in the driving seats.
"The boys were hungry in the contact area and it was a big focus for us to be physical and have a big work-rate.
“The boys showed that in certain areas of the field, and when the opportunities came we were level-headed and calm and took them. We didn’t try to force things.
“The forwards did the hard graft for us to be able to release the fast guys out wide.”
Two days before the clash against Scarlets, the young side travelled to Edinburgh for a development weekend where they would also take on the Scotland under-18 national side.
The Blues secured victory against their hosts, but Everett insists the benefits of the experience goes beyond the 80 minutes on the rugby field.
The coach added: “The boys might not instantly but it’s been hugely beneficial for them to fly away as a squad, stay in a hotel together, eating, managing a team run and playing against an international side.
“It’s the first time some of them have experienced that, and we replicated a senior professional set-up as closely as we could.
“When they take a step back and understand the experience they’ve had, I think it will help them so much in the future.
“It’s been positive to give those boys that opportunity as well as playing the regular regional fixtures.”