Following 13 consecutive weeks of action, the Cardiff Blues squad enjoyed a well-earned rest last week, as we passed the half way mark in the campaign.
But they’re back in camp this week, as the preparations for crucial upcoming Guinness PRO14 encounters against Connacht, Benetton and Edinburgh take a step up.
We sat down with head coach, John Mulvihill, to reflect on the first half of the season and look ahead to the next few months at Cardiff Arms Park.
Has there been renewed energy within the camp since the squad came back in earlier this week?
The break probably came at the right time for everyone. We’ve had a few significant injuries towards the end of the block and we were probably hanging on a little bit.
But we had that week off and everyone has come back in refreshed. We’ve had a lighter week with a lot of skill-based activities and a lot of fun, both on and off the pitch.
We’ll really start to focus ahead of Connacht from next week, and have a good 10-day build-up into that game.
You don’t necessarily need to go away to feel refreshed, but not having to drive through the gates for a week can give you a different perspective of what you’re about as a group.
It also makes you appreciate the good things that are happening around you, and sometimes it can be hard to see that if you’re embroiled in 13 weeks of rugby and in high-pressure situations for everyone.
Christmas was a very good period for us. Unfortunately we didn’t get the three wins, but we came very close.
The festive period took a lot of energy, and we were glad to get through that, have this small break and now refocus on our next set of games.
It’s going to be a little bit different for us now. We’ve got blocks of games coming up, with breaks in between, for the rest of the season, and that means that we can be really focused and be specific on our preparations per game now.
Without being involved in a European competition during the second half of the season, does that allow for a different type of focus for you as a group?
First of all, we were very disappointed that we didn’t qualify for the quarter final. It came down to one bonus point, and there were a few points that we left behind out there.
You think back particularly to the Leicester game at home and possibly away to Pau, where we weren’t at our best for the first 20 minutes.
When you look back at it, it is disappointing not to make it through, because we would’ve given the competition a real go with the way that we play.
We scored 30 tries in that competition in the six games that we played, and if we can replicate that form in the last part of the PRO14, then it will stand us in good stead.
We’re firmly focused on week-by-week now, and making sure that we select and train the best team possible for each week, with specific plans for each opposition.
It’s good for our focus that we’re just involved in the PRO14 going forward. We’ve got 11 games to go, and a lot of those teams that we’ll play are in Conference B.
You need to win a lot of those games to push up in the Conference, while the cross-over games are very important as well.
We’ll host a fair number of those games at home at the Arms Park, so we’re really looking forward to getting big crowds back the Arms Park, creating good atmosphere and we’ll be playing some great rugby in front of our home fans.
We’ve won seven out of the last 11 games in all competitions, and if we go ahead to win seven of our next 11 games, then there’s a real possibility for us to make it to play-off rugby.
It’s very important that we become more consistent in our results, and that means keep doing the hard work and that will be something that we do together.
We want to keep looking after each other as a family, which is one of the big values that we’ve had this year. If we do that, we’ll play some good rugby and pick up the results.
Speaking about family and the values here at Cardiff Blues, have you seen a significant difference in what you’ve tried to build in terms of a culture at Cardiff Arms Park?
We were possibly a little bit disjointed when we first started last year, but the players have really looked to take more ownership and help with the direction that the club is heading towards. It can’t always be coach-focused and coach-driven.
We’ve got a decent leadership role group that meet weekly, and we’ve had a leadership summit earlier in the season, and we’ll refresh that very soon.
We want to listen to what the players have to say, listen to the direction that they want to go and have everyone buying into it.
Ultimately, there are some tough decisions that need to be made at times, but we listen to the players and find out what works best for them and us.
It’s a happy group at the moment, and you can feel some really good energy around the place and a lot of boys have wanted to re-sign and have re-signed.
It was fantastic after the Calvisano game. We had a family day here at the Arms Park where it was great to spend some time together and have a few drinks and food in the company of each other and our families.
It was a fantastic initiative by the Blues, and it was the players who drove a lot of that, and we’re excited to continue with those type of days here at the Arms Park.
The fans can see how hard we work for each other, and how we enjoy the experience. We always talk about playing with smiles on our faces, and if we can do that then it will permeate across the sidelines and gets the fans involved. They seem to enjoy that as well.
We seem to have a really good atmosphere building here and you can see that, when supporters come here to watch us play, they get as close-up to the team as possible and we are welcoming as one big family who want to succeed.
We understand that we’ll have better days and some will be tough, but as long as we stick together and enjoy and celebrate the big moments, whether that’s on or off the field, then our group of supporters will be really happy with where we’re heading.
And the culture, values and leaders are likely to play a particularly crucial role during the international break, where some key players are on duty with Wales.
We understand that we have a smaller squad than other parts of the season, so we need to make sure that we’re as tight as we can possibly be if we are to win those really important games without some big players.
We have a lot more of our players involved with the Wales national side for this campaign, which is something that the club always strives for.
All the team-mates and coaches here always congratulate the boys that are involved and we will be riding the crest of the wave with them.
We will really be getting behind them and supporting them.
All the boys are really looking forward to seeing their team-mates run around out there, and are excited for the new era of Welsh rugby.
We’re really happy for the boys involved in the Six Nations and will support them in any way that we can.
But they’re also boys that come down to support us as well. We’ll make our support known and they’ll be backing us down here when they can as well.
The signing of Sam Moore was confirmed earlier this week, while we’ve had a lot of re-signing news over the last few weeks. How pleased are you with the way recruitment and retention is progressing?
A lot of the boys have been retained. We had 21 boys coming to the end of their contracts at the end of next season, and more than half of those have already re-signed with us.
Sam is coming from Sale Sharks as a very big and physical player who had a great age grade career.
Obviously Eddie Jones has seen something in him, having invited him into the training squad for the Six Nations in 2018.
He was identified through our Exiles programme and obviously the Wales set-up have seen him as a player for the future.
We’re encouraged by that, and have sat down with him to set out a plan for the future to get him back out on the field and get fit after a few injuries.
He’s excited by the way that we play the game and what we do off the field, as well as the general vibe of our values.
He said that it’s a really simple move for him to make and he’s really looking forward to putting his best foot forward and getting into a Cardiff Blues jersey this season.
Recruitment is something that is constant for myself and for our CEO, Richard Holland.
We’re down the line with a few players at the moment, while we’re also exploring further afield into Super Rugby and South Africa to see what else is around.
The new funding model will likely reward the teams who have a majority of their players coming through the academy, and that’s something we’re very proud of.
With 62 per cent of the current squad graduating from our pathway, we’ve been one of the top sides with players coming through the academy and representing the region, and we can be really proud of that.
If we can bring players back from outside Wales who are Welsh qualified, then it serves the purpose of where we want to go as a region.
It’s interesting when speaking to players from other clubs, both inside and outside of Wales, who can see and understand the message that we’re pushing here. They know it’s not just words. They can see from example of the things that are happening here.
We’ve had a number of enquiries based on players feeling like Cardiff Blues would be a really good fit for them based on what we’re trying to achieve here.
It’s about treating each other well, even though all families have their bust-ups every now and again! Yes, we want to win every game. Yes, we want to qualify for different stages of different competitions.
But we want to keep into perspective what we want to achieve and understand that sometimes you might be beaten by a better team on the weekend. But as long as you’ve played well, then you can look yourself in the eye and say that’s good enough and be proud of your efforts.
In every game this year, our effort scores have been absolutely through the roof. So we can’t fault the effort that’s being put in, both on the training field and in games.
But in the next part of the season we’re focusing on making sure our skills are accurate and we have dynamism and discipline going forward, which could be the difference if we want to get out of the shadow of former Cardiff Blues teams being teams with 50-50 record.
We’re half way through the season, and it’s been months since the squad’s base switched from the Vale to the Arms Park. With time to reflect and settle in, how successful has that move been?
There’s been a big difference compared to the Vale. There was a lot of luxuries up there, but also a lot of dead-time spent where the boys would sit around and wait for the next session to happen.
There were opportunities for the boys to do their extras, their prehab and rehab and some analytical work, but some of the days would be long out there.
There’s a bit of freshness in between meetings and sessions here where they can go for a coffee, or meet up with family and friends who they haven’t seen in a while because they work in town.
Our proximity and where we are situated in town is fantastic for everyone.
When I first came in, we had different silos. We had a fans silo, we had a Cardiff Arms Park working group and a Vale working group. Sometimes they wouldn’t meet up very often.
But we’re in the middle of it here. The people in the office can see that everyone coming together will make us stronger as a group and making things a lot easier. The cohesion is something that we, as a company, need to continually work on, because that ultimately rubs off on our performances on a weekend.
If boys are happy coming into work and enjoying their environment, you’ll be able to see that on the way we play.
Coming back here has put things into perspective regarding where we need to be. We now need to keep working hard to reach the potential that we should be at.
I look back to what Wills Halaholo said earlier in the year. We’re actually at home now. We have to protect our home and need to win at home every time.
Their home, previously, was at the Vale for eight seasons. The Arms Park was just a pitch that they came to play on every second week. But they feel that this place is a part of them now.
It’s the spiritual home of rugby for the region and, by being in the capital city, it’s the best and biggest ground where it’s situated. There’s excitement every time you walk through the gates now.