By Peter Jackson
Danny Wilson is one more home win away from taking Cardiff Blues into a European final on the proverbial shoestring. No squad can possibly have got that close on a shorter or more threadbare piece of lacing which makes their Challenge Cup semi-final against Pau on Saturday week all the more improbable. Certainly no contender can have started the season in more demoralising circumstances.
A financial crisis enveloped the Arms Park in pre-season. Wilson had planned to build his pack around the Blues’ major signing, Franco van der Merwe from Ulster only to be told that the Springbok lock had come and gone before he could get to his first lineout.
He had been off-loaded to London Irish because the Blues could not afford to pay the wages they agreed to when they signed him a few months earlier. Having kept the capital region afloat through one under-achieving season after another, chairman Peter Thomas’ decision to cut his losses had dire consequences.
An urgent need to slash the wage bill called for the unloading of at least two other high-profile players which hardly did anything to improve dressing-room morale. The £500,000 windfall generated by the tournament’s South Africa dimension arrived in the nick of time to save further drastic economies.
By then Wilson could have been forgiven for thinking that coaching the emasculated Blues offered only marginally more chance of survival than captaining Titanic. Not surprisingly, he wasted little time rejecting the option of extending his contract and by late September had given due notice to quit with effect from the end of the season. He vowed to bust the proverbial gut until then despite having to make do with a thin staff. The cost-cutting left Wilson with fewer specialist coaches than his predecessor, the former All Black Mark Hammett, had at his disposal.
Billy Millard, the Blues’ general rugby manager with responsibility for recruitment, left at the end of last season. He has not been replaced which meant Wilson having to find time beyond his role as head coach to ensure that the best out-of-contract players signed new deals.
Another full-time position, that of defence coach, has remained vacant with Shaun Edwards delegated from national duty to the Arms Park once a week.
It is ironic, therefore, that the WRU is understood to have provided extra funding of around £200,000 to ensure Wilson’s successor, the Australian John Mulvihill, will not lack for any shortage of coaches.
On top of all the budgetary constraints and the usual cluster of casualties, including the illness of former Wales wing Tom James, the Blues had lost the services of their most valuable player throughout what would be, at best, a challenging season. Sam Warburton had been sacrificed on the altar of Test rugby with Wales and the Lions.
A half-empty, or half-full Arms Park bore apathetic witness to the start of the PRO14 season. Not surprisingly the patched-up Blues lost their first three games, including successive home setbacks against Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Qualification for the Champions’ Cup had long disappeared from the radar, a virtual impossibility given what Wilson and his right hand man, backs coach Matt Sherratt, had been left to work with. And now, incredibly, the Blues have opened two routes into the elite European competition next season.
Doubles over Toulouse and Lyon en route to the last eight give their run a worthy sense of achievement. The reward for last weekend’s unanimous points win over Edinburgh at Murrayfield gives the Blues home advantage against Pau knowing another knock-out puts them into the Challenge Cup final in Bilbao on May 11 against Gloucester or Newcastle.
The overall winner qualifies for the Champions’ Cup. Should the Blues fall short on the European front, they could have qualified by then via the PRO14, a prospect raised by five straight wins before yesterday’s run-in with the Cheetahs after an exhausting 24-hour journey to Bloemfontein.
Wilson has done it with a predominantly Welsh team featuring some of the best and brightest in the game – Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams, Seb Davies, Dillon Lewis and Owen Lane all breaking through in and around the all-international back row of Josh Turnbull, Ellis Jenkins and the No.1 contender as Wales player of the year, Josh Navidi.
The prospect of a glorious finale to the season will be no more than Wilson deserves, an achievement against all the odds. Wales can ill afford to lose coaches of his calibre.
While Sherratt will still be in Wales, albeit at the Ospreys, the real shame is that Wilson found himself in a position where he felt he had no option but to seek a better future in the English Premiership. Wasps’ gain is most definitely the Blues’ loss.
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