FOR an idea of just how uneasy the relationship has been between the words Cardiff and Blues you have to go right back to the birth of regional rugby, to the launch of the region’s first home jersey – which was white.
Fittingly (no pun intended) there was a hurried and botched feel about the press conference called to unveil it.
In the words of Max Boyce, I was there, as the South Wales Echo’s chief rugby writer and, like most of my colleagues and cynical friends, still half-expecting the like-it-or-lump-it Welsh rugby revolution engineered by then WRU boss David Moffett to come crashing down around the outspoken Aussie’s closed ears.
Canadian veteran Dan Baugh had been chosen to model the new shirt, shorts and socks, catwalk-style, as Blues officials mingled with intrigued but sceptical journalists and assorted hangers-on.
“Not much blue in it,” Baugh quipped. To which came Arms Park chief executive Bob Norster’s eye-rolling reply….”thanks Dan”.
For the record, there was actually some of the famous Cambridge blue – which had always been a feature of the Cardiff RFC side the Blues were now replacing – visible on the new design. But it was in the form of token thin hoops with an even thinner black trim.
There was no point sugar-coating it; Cardiff fans already irked at having the word Blues affixed to the name of their club would also have to get used to the predominance of a new colour when their heroes ran out of the tunnel to do battle. Quite why this had happened, nobody in the press corps could fathom.
Fast forward to March 2021 and the Blues hierarchy were on Monday this week – Blue Monday if you like – announcing a rebranding which will see the “club with regional responsibilities” be known as Cardiff Rugby from the start of next season, the irony being that previous debates around the identity of Cardiff Blues had always centred around the potential changing of the first word rather than the second.
In order to embrace 100% the regional concept, in order to win the hearts and minds of the support-base outside of the city and its immediate surrounding areas – such as there ever was a support-base of any substantial scale – it was frequently argued that Cardiff should be the word scrubbed out.
So in doing the opposite to the Ospreys, Scarlets and Dragons who have all ditched the geographical prefix to their brands, the soon-to-be defunct Blues are swimming against the tide.
And yet the decision is not a surprise. Those in power at the Arms Park have always guarded zealously the Cardiff heritage, arguing that the power of the old club’s global resonance was too valuable a commercial weapon to relinquish.
At times there has been an element of sniffiness about such an outlook, a sense it emanates from people stuck in the past, misguidedly clinging to historic entitlement that has diminishing relevance in the fast-changing world of the professional game.
It is hard, however, to mount a case against the ditching of the Blues moniker for one overriding reason: it has never really meant anything to supporters or, critically in these financially stretched times, corporate stakeholders.
Rewind to that somewhat farcical kit launch 18 years ago and Baugh’s jokey aside looks ever more like a classic Freudian slip. Why exactly are we calling ourselves the Blues, Baugh’s sub-conscious probably asked, when we can barely even get blue onto the home jersey?
And yet here’s another irony; if you’d turned to Norster back then and asked him ‘why Blues?’ it’s doubtful he would have come up with anything of greater relevance than it being a nod to the blue which at that stage had been in existence as one of the two club colours for 127 years.
But that’s just it…one of two. Cardiff pre-2003 were the Blue and Blacks. There was no more affinity among supporters for blue in isolation than there would have been among fans of their great rivals 14 miles east had they been re-christened Newport Ambers.
Studies of group identity theory reveal the importance of emotional significance in sports fans’ allegiance to a particular team. Loyalty derives from factors such as relationships an individual has with larger social networks surrounding the team, and also the city in which it operates. Research also suggests that the highest degree of fervency and commitment towards teams is found in people who see that team as an extension of their own community. It’s a concept covered by the promotion and marketing modules on our BA Sports Journalism course at University of South Wales, and it’s something students who see their future as part of clubs’ in-house media teams take an especially keen interest in.
In short, attracting support then maintaining and increasing it is about far more than people’s association with a collection of athletes and a coach. Geography matters, studies have shown, contrived branding far less so.
Blues always was an adjunct, and hindsight has exposed it in the Cardiff context as an insipid marketing tool. In 2003 there were inevitable comparisons between the name of the new Cardiff entity and Auckland Blues, the New Zealand franchise which was then one of the most successful in the fledgling history of the Super Rugby competition – and which incidentally did away with the Auckland part of their brand in 2000. What’s good enough for a crack Kiwi outfit, so some opined, will be good enough for one of what were five new Welsh sides in a slimmed down professional tier designed to mimic that of the best rugby nation in the world.
It was a spurious connection. At least the Auckland version of the Blues could lean on the fact that their identity captured the team colours of two of the franchise’s original feeder provinces – Auckland and Northland. The theory went that this would create a strong team identity, that it would unite provinces that had hitherto been hostile towards one another.
Even that rather tenuous logic was absent in the Cardiff namesake.
A glance across other changes to sports teams’ names – or proposed changes – reveals more meaningful motivations.
Crusaders, originally Canterbury Crusaders, toyed with the idea of changing their identity in the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings of March 15, 2019, which saw 51 people killed. It was felt the name was linked too closely with the medieval crusades, a war between Christians and Muslims that spanned hundreds of years. After careful consideration franchise bosses announced the name would stay but the 25-year-old logo – of a medieval knight and sword – would be replaced by a Māori motif.
Closer to home Exeter Chiefs have come under pressure to rid themselves of their Chiefs identity from some who view it as offensive to the Native American community. Ultimately they resisted the pressure, insisting that the club’s connection to the word Chiefs was more than a 100 years old and therefore carried high importance to the rugby community in Devon. They also claimed their own research had confirmed the name was ‘highly respectful’.
No need for any recourse to social issues in the case of Cardiff Blues. No need to look for something that’s patently never been there.
The trumpeting of a new brand name back in 2003 always had an Emperor’s New Clothes feel about it, as if the new Cardiff region had to chuck something onto the table to show it wasn’t simply the same old Cardiff RFC alongside other new-fangled creations. Especially when those creations were born out of the destruction in status of some of the Welsh game’s biggest names.
Blues was never held in any affection by Arms Park supporters because it never carried any meaning.
The pandemic, and the economic crisis it has brought to the Welsh game, appears to have focused minds and acted as a catalyst for change.
The Blues have woken up to the futility of trying to please people by being something they are not. They’re going back to being what they always wanted to be, what, had circumstances surrounding their inception been less febrile, they might have been from the very start.
They may well lament that it’s taken them nearly two decades to shed what was always a completely pointless part of their identity.
No wonder the overwhelming majority of their supporters are glad to see the back of it.