Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton: Can Cardiff avoid exodus of the stars?

With the Heineken Cup in danger and top players moving on, these are tough times for Blues director of rugby, Phil Davies. But, he tells Chris Hewett, the region is rich in potential, talent and fortitude

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The Independent Online

Just for a moment, God was in his rugby heaven and all was right with the world. The Vale of Glamorgan was saturated in sunlight – an act of divine intervention if ever there was one – and out there on one of the perfectly manicured Cardiff Blues training fields, Leigh Halfpenny was kicking the ball miles. At the same moment, Sam Warburton could be found in the clubhouse dining room, telling anyone within earshot that, if he had his way, he would be applying his thumbprint to a new contract without further ado. It was almost a state of bliss.

Except there is no such thing. Not in Welsh regional rugby, at any rate. There is only reality, for better or for worse, and right now, the first of those varieties is proving elusive. All four of the country’s professional teams have seen some of their star turns leave home in pursuit of a brighter, wealthier future – a haemorrhaging of talent that becomes more difficult to stem with every failed attempt to rescue the Heineken Cup or find something to take its place.

If that were not enough, the Welsh Rugby Union is playing hardball over a new participation agreement, threatening to suffocate the regions financially if they do not commit fully to toeing the establishment line – a challenging demand, given the impenetrable fog of uncertainty that has descended over the club game in Europe as a result of the Heineken Cup dispute. And then there is this season’s tournament, in which the Blues find themselves in a rock-and-a-hard-place kind of pool.

No one seriously expects them to prevail home and away over the reigning champions Toulon, even if Jonny Wilkinson can now be said to have entered the twilight of his playing career. But it is still widely assumed that any team bearing the name of the Welsh capital will beat the likes of Exeter and Glasgow, even though those two teams are significantly more threatening than the casual observer might appreciate. The Blues could finish second in the group, but equally they could finish last. In which case, a Heineken Cup journey that began with a roar – they reached the final in the inaugural tournament in 1996 – will end with a bat squeak.

These are hard times, and Phil Davies has been feeling the pain. It was particularly excruciating on the evening of 20 September when, in home surroundings at the Arms Park – the place where Bleddyn Williams, Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies and Terry Holmes played their rugby – the Blues contrived to lose a Pro 12 game to Zebre, the weaker of the two first-tier Italian teams and a side who had never previously beaten anyone, anywhere. “That was tough to take,” the rugby director admits. “It hurt me personally and it hurt us collectively. It was bound to happen to someone, I suppose, but that didn’t make it any easier. Neither did the fact that every statistical indicator in the game told me we should have won comfortably. There comes a point when the stats don’t mean a thing.”

Davies is the most affable and positive-minded of men. An outstanding coach who worked the oracle during a long stint in England with Leeds – as a demonstration of how to create something from next to nothing, it was just about textbook – and took the Llanelli-based Scarlets to a Heineken Cup semi-final in 2007, he has engaged strongly with the senior Blues players in the 18 months since his arrival at the Arms Park from Worcester. According to Warburton, the Lions captain in Australia last summer and one of the best half-dozen loose forwards in the sport, he is doing “a great job”.

But all this hassle must be getting to him, surely. Can he really function to the max when the papers are full of Halfpenny and Warburton being courted by big-spending French clubs; when Warburton’s agent goes public with the news that the Blues cannot offer the flanker a new contract because their future budget depends on the outcome of a Heineken Cup row that shows no sign of ending; when no one knows for sure whether the whole of Welsh regional rugby is about to go into meltdown?

“Look,” he says with an uncharacteristic sigh. “I know everyone comes out with this line, but it happens to be true: I can only control the things that are mine to control. Neither Leigh nor Sam have shown the slightest sign of being distracted by all the chatter – they’re really not the types – and I can honestly say that the same goes for me.

“My message to the players is the same now as it was when I came in at the start of last season. I’m here to give youngsters an opportunity, to build a squad on the backs of those who prove themselves able to perform at a high level and to establish a culture of success.

“On the politics and all the rest of it, I happen to have enough faith in the administrators of the game in Europe – I believe there are enough good people with good intentions – to sort things out in a way that works for all of us. We’ve been here before, remember. When the game went pro in the mid-1990s, we all thought: ‘Christ, how’s this going to unfold? Who’s going to pay the players?’ We’ve had similar crises over the Heineken Cup and the old Five Nations, periods when it seemed we were on the edge of the cliff. Yet there’s always been an agreement.

“Don’t get me wrong: this is a very significant moment in time for our sport. There are big issues being discussed and solutions are hard to come by. But if you’re pushing me for a prediction, I’d say this: in two or three years, we’ll all look back on 2013 and say, ‘That was a tough moment, but we came through it’.”

Davies has lost 20-odd players, many of them highly experienced, since taking charge of the Blues. He has endeavoured to fill the seniority vacuum by signing Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees, two-thirds of the Lions front row in South Africa four years ago, and is delighted by their contribution. “They’ve brought a tremendous amount of added value, both of them,” he says.

He also speaks highly of the Pacific islanders in his squad: the Tongan prop Taufa’ao Filise – “probably the strongest bloke I’ve ever known” – and the Samoan lock Filo Paulo.

But the bulk of his squad-building has had more to do with youth development than big-name recruitment. Harry Robinson, Owen Williams, Cory Allen, Rhys Patchell, Josh Navidi… the Blues are fast-tracking a new generation into first-team action in the passionate belief that there must be a reward for being on the side of the angels.

“What I have here is a squad full to overflowing with potential – and for much of the time, a team with an average age of 23,” Davies says. “They will go through some tough experiences, but that doesn’t worry me unduly. Tough experiences are what great teams are built on, and besides, I think there’s a lot of realism on the Cardiff Blues board. The people in charge understand what we’re trying to do.

“At the same time, I can’t pretend that it’s all right to go on talking about potential and small margins – to keep highlighting the new things we’re implementing while falling short on the field. I could point out that last season, when we finished ninth in the Pro 12, we were a couple of close games away from being up there with Munster, pushing top six. But that wasn’t how it turned out. Potential is a hollow word if it isn’t fulfilled.

“Am I satisfied with what we’re doing, fundamentally? Yes, very much so. Am I disappointed with some of our results? I suppose I am. But objectivity is crucial. There has been a lot of change here and consistency is rarely the immediate product of change. What we are producing now is a good deal of outstanding talent and those players are fully aware that it’s the rugby they deliver here that will eventually drive them into international rugby. As I keep saying to them: ‘Performance in the blue jersey earns you the red one’.”