To describe Cardiff Blues current circumstances as a “nadir” would be to gloss over the very desperate affairs at the region. Alarm bells must be ringing in WRU headquarters, as they watch the region slide from one humiliating defeat to another. The latest, a near sixty point crushing by Leinster stabbed an icicle into the heart of every Cardiff Rugby fan as the region fell to a new low.
It does not get any easier, either: on Friday they face Munster at the Arms Park and that could easily be six defeats in a row and five straight league defeats. Frankly, that just is not good enough.
We’ve been here before
We’ve been here before. In the 2003-04 season, the Blues only won 3 league matches: against the Ospreys, Leinster and Connacht. In 2004-05 they went eight straight games without recording a win and the team were booed from the field in the infamous 15-38 loss to Stade Francais. That year, the Blues had to qualify for the Heineken Cup through a playoff against Arix Viadana, a game the team won 38-9 – this was only the second away win that season.
The following season, despite the signing of Jonah Lomu, the Blues went down to Perpignan 3-21 and 3-48 to the Leeds Tykes. These humiliating reversals were part of a 5 match losing run and it was at this point that the management felt moved to issue “final warnings” to underperforming players.
So, long losing runs are familiar to the Cardiff fans and have been ever since Peter Thomas took over the club before the region was formed. In fact, the pattern is a familiar one: tightened purse strings and coaches who are learning their trade resulting in poor results on the field. While the Ospreys were splashing cash all over the place in the early days, Cardiff were plugging away with journeymen, kids and a wet behind the ears coach.
We are now six years down the line from the formation of the regions and to find the most famous club in the world floundering is disturbing to say the least. Putting your finger on the reason for that is more difficult than at first might seem to be the case and laying the blame solely at the door of Peter Thomas is probably both inaccurate and unfair. Thomas is a Cardiff fan and it probably pains him as much as any of them to see the plight of the region, but currently, he is the only person who can actually do anything about it though.
Clearly the move to Leckwith was ill-founded, it cost the Blues a shed load of money and the fans disliked it from the start. Both the location and the association with the football club ran completely counter to the history and traditions of the club come region. The end result was scuttling back to an Arms Park that had been run down for years, shedding of many of the team’s stars and the appointment of a coach, whose career to date has been far from illustrious. As decisions go, the move to Leckwith was about as bad it gets. Everyone outside the region said it would be a disaster and it was.
From the start, the branding of the stadium as “Cardiff City Stadium” rather than the “City of Cardiff Stadium” made the point that Cardiff Blues were the rent boys in the relationship. Nothing has underlined this more than the latest rebranding following the Blues exodus: it is now the “Cardiff City FOOTBALL Stadium”, a triumphal statement and a sneer in the direction of the rugby club.
Back at the Arms Park
Now the Blues are back at a rickety old Arms Park, the famous ground that has seen so many triumphs of old, but with an urgent need to balance the books. Richard Holland, the regions CEO is a canny character, but even he admits that unless there is a cash injection from the WRU, the region will not be able to hold on to the likes of Jamie Roberts who is being tempted by big money offers from elsewhere. Roberts, who comes out of contract next June has already been approached by French clubs eager to take on a player who is widely seen not only as the best inside centre in Northern Hemisphere rugby, but also a role model player whose marketing value is inestimable.
Warburton and Halfpenny have a year left to run on their contracts, so there is no immediate danger of their departure and Holland is talking in terms of bolting on another couple of years to take them up to the 2015 World Cup. However, it would be true to say that the region is staring into the abyss.
Without a winning team, the crowds will be poor and the interest in the team as a viable marketing proposition will fall to a lower level still. Companies are hardly falling over themselves to sponsor Welsh teams as it is and the only way that will change is by generating on-field success. With that, the crowds will come back and the Blues will start playing in high-profile games that everyone wants to see.
The chill wind blows colder though when you hear Holland utter the words: “The benefactors have already made it clear they are not ready to put additional resources in.”
“The benefactors have already made it clear they are not ready to put additional resources in.” Richard Holland.
In that one sentence lies a whole world of pain. You can scarcely blame the benefactors, who have poured money down the regional drain for six years and have now drawn a line under it; they do not want to put good money after bad. The problem is the region was brought to this point under their stewardship.
It is easy to say that Cardiff should have modelled themselves on Leicester, Gloucester or any number of other Aviva Premiership sides, who are now filling their stadiums and fielding good rugby teams who play exciting rugby, but there is a lot more money in the Aviva Premiership than in the RaboDirect Pro12. So, how have Leinster, Munster and lately, Ulster, done it?
Attendances low and falling
Only last month Leinster played Munster in front of a 46,000 crowd – even against the Blues, Leinster attracted over 17,000 supporters. Their fans flock to the games. Ulster regularly get over 10,000 at Ravenhill, whereas the Blues rarely top 8,500 and there is every sign the fans are going to start voting with their feet.
The upwards trend at Ulster is constrained by the size of their ground, which has a capacity of 12,200 – slightly less than that of the Arms Park at 12,500. However, they have not long opened their £4.5 million Mount Merrion stand and already they are talking about further redevelopment with a £14.5 million grant from the Northern Ireland Executive to take the ground’s capacity up to 18,000. In 2012, Environment Minister, Alex Attwood, Sports Minister, Caral Ni Chuilin, Ulster Rugby Chairman, Shane Logan and Chairman of Sport NI, Dominic Walsh all confirmed that three new stands will be built at Ravenhill, with work expected to commence at late 2012. The existing stands at the Memorial and Aquinas ends of the ground will be redesigned and the main stand will be demolished and rebuilt. The major refurbishment is expected to be completed in 2015.
They are beginning to stretch away while Cardiff stumble and fall.