Welcome to the first in our series of blogs evaluating the current Cardiff Blues squad. Over the next few weeks we will have the lowdown on each position on the field, deciding which players can be seen as surplus to requirements, are exciting players for the future and our top players right now, as well as where we need to strengthen before next season. First up, the heavy boys at the front of the scrum….
Kicking off with tighthead prop and after the departure of Adam Jones to next season’s Challenge Cup opponents Harlequins, we are left with three senior tightheads heading into 2015/16. Craig Mitchell is the first choice out of those in my opinion, and having overcome some fitness issues after signing last summer, he finished the season better playing an hour against the Ospreys at Judgement Day and the Scarlets in the last away game of the season, if he can get a good pre-season in, Mitchell can be a big player for the Blues next season.
Behind Mitchell in the pecking order we have Scott Andrews and Cardiff stalwart Tau Filise. Unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned, neither are particularly viable alternatives to Mitchell. In terms of Filise, the guy is a Blues legend. However, he is now 38, and although that means he clearly has plenty of experience with two RWCs and 29 Tonga caps under his belt, it also means he’s not as mobile as he once was, and his scrummaging appears to have taken a backwards step, as we saw at Rodney Parade on New Year’s Day when he was hauled off at half-time. With Andrews, it’s a tricky case. Scott was earmarked as a tighthead with potential early on, appearing for Wales U16s, U18s and captained the U20s at the Six Nations and JWC. He made his Blues debut at 19 and was called up to the Wales senior squad at 20 years old, making his debut in 2011. However, since then Andrews has somewhat failed to meet his potential, culminating in a disappointing last season as he clearly didn’t impress Mark Hammett or the Chief and Paul John enough to make a single start in the Pro12, despite being named in Warren Gatland’s Six Nations squad. Personally, I feel Andrews has some excellent qualities, he’s quick and a good ball carrier, but his scrummaging needs some work and he needs to become more consistent. Under forwards specialist Danny Wilson and probably being second choice behind Craig Mitchell, Andrews has a big chance to make 2015/16 his big breakthrough season.
Although the tighthead position in the senior squad is somewhat questionable, the good news is that there is certainly some talent coming through the academy. Dillon Lewis and Joe Jones held down the number 3 shirt in four games of Wales U20s recent JWC campaign, with both having impressive seasons in the Welsh Premiership, Jones at Cardiff RFC, and Lewis at Pontypridd, Lewis also making his professional debut in the LV Cup against Wasps.
Conclusion: Could be stronger but not a massive priority, future looks bright.
Of course there is only one name that matters at loosehead, and that’s Gethin Jenkins. Despite the fact that he will be 35 in November, Gethin is still a top quality prop and the best number 1 in the squad. However, being 35 has lead to a number of injury problems. If we can get a relatively injury-free season out of him this year we may keep him for the season after that, but Gethin isn’t going to be around forever so it’s time to look behind him for a replacement.
The natural replacement in the squad at the moment is Sam Hobbs. Like Scott Andrews on the other side of the front row, Hobbs hasn’t quite built on early potential shown as a Wales youth international, although unlike Andrews, Sam has had some serious injury problems, including two ACL reconstructions and a minor stroke suffered on the field not long after making his Blues debut as a 21 year old in January 2010. Last year though Hobbs had a solid season for Cardiff, only missing one Pro12 game and performing well with Gethin Jenkins injured or on Wales duty. Hobbs has also captained the Blues so provided he has a solid season next season he could be an influential Cardiff player over the years. As well as Hobbs we also have Tom Davies competing for the loosehead position. Davies is a slightly odd case, since making his debut in the LV Cup aged 18 he’s gone on to play 36 times for the Blues since 2011, but I have to say I’ve never really noticed him. At only 22 he still has plenty of time ahead to establish himself as a proper first teamer, and with Wales youth honours under his belt, as well as 15 appearances for Cardiff last year, he has a solid base to build one. 2015/16 could be a big one for the Ponty boy as he bids to prove himself to Danny Wilson, who could well be a perfect coach for him.
With Jenkins, Hobbs and Davies forming the senior trio of looseheads, there’s a fair amount of competition behind them as well with three youngsters coming through the academy. Rob Lewis, and particularly Callum Lewis, had good seasons for Cardiff RFC, and have Wales U18 experiences, while Bradley Thyer has turned out a few times for Pontypridd RFC in 2014/15, exactly how many times I don’t know because their website doesn’t do stats. However, the future for props at the Arms Park looks bright, and hopefully Danny Wilson’s forwards expertise and Wales U20 background can help bring these players through.
Conclusion: Looking pretty good, need to start thinking about life after Gethin Jenkins though.
With the departure of former captain Matthew Rees and squad filler Marc Breeze at the end of last season, hooker has to be a priority for new coach Danny Wilson and Billy Millard as they put a squad together for next season. Having said that we do have a ready made first choice for the number 2 shirt in Kristian Dacey. After coming through the Merthyr RFC youth system and then moving through the Pontypridd and Cardiff RFC teams, Dacey made his Blues debut in 2010, and 74 appearances later he has become an integral part of the side. His throwing ability is decent, but the most impressive aspect of his play comes when he’s getting around the field, tackling and hitting the breakdown, and specifically with ball in hand as he’s shown with 11 tries in the last two seasons, not bad at all for a prop. With Dacey hitting 26 next month and currently in the Wales RWC training squad, he’s certainly coming right into his prime.
The downside of Dacey performing so well is of course the possibility of more time away with Wales. So, who’s there ready to take his place and keep the standards up? Well, not much really. In fact it’s just Rhys Williams. Now this isn’t great on two levels, firstly there’s only one senior hooker in reserve, and secondly, Rhys Williams is yet another example of a teenager with potential not quite making the grade yet. You could form a front row of Williams with Scott Andrews and Sam Hobbs either side that 5/6 years ago you might’ve said could be a Wales front row by now. Like Andrews, Williams has U16 and U18 Wales honours, and captained the U20 side. He made his senior debut for Pontypridd at 17 and became a Blue at just 18. However, 69, mostly substitute, appearances later and Rhys is yet to set the world alight. Having failed to start a single league or European game last season behind Dacey and Matthew Rees, Williams will be hoping to get some more game time this year and begin to kick on. I, however, am praying we sign some competition for him.
If for some reason, though, we didn’t sign a senior hooker, the academy ranks have certainly produced an alternative for Danny Wilson to work on. Liam Belcher is widely regarded as one of the most promising prospects in Welsh rugby at the moment, playing in every U20 Six Nations and JWC game this year and playing a key role in Pontypridd’s Welsh Premiership winning team. Pushing him along is Ethan Lewis, with Wales U18 honours and 54 Cardiff RFC appearances already at the age of 21, Lewis, like Belcher, could be more than capable of stepping up to the Blues side this year if needed. Indeed, both have already made their debuts in the LV Cup last season.
Conclusion: Desperately need to add a hooker, although Belcher in particular is an exciting prospect.