The start of World Cup warm-up season saw Wales take on Ireland at the Millennium Stadium. After weeks of painfully boring articles on WalesOnline surrounding what the players had for breakfast on training tours to Switzerland and Dubai, it was good to see the boys pull on a red jersey and get on the pitch, especially the Cardiff players, Alex Cuthbert, Kristian Dacey, Scott Andrews, Lloyd Williams and Gareth Anscombe.
With Warren Gatland poised to cut the squad following the game, he, like Ireland, had picked an experimental match day 23, as chances were given to fringe and uncapped players. While Sam Warburton, Gethin Jenkins and Cory Allen were left out as safe from the first squad cull, Rhys Patchell didn’t get a chance, perhaps on the basis he wasn’t ever going to make the final squad and the training would provide him with good experience.
Onto the game, and with both teams not anywhere near close to the XV’s that we can expect to see at the World Cup, the score wasn’t going to be particularly important. That was until Ireland started hammering Wales, only a well worked Richard Hibbard try putting Wales on a 25-7 score line at half-time. With just Alex Cuthbert in the starting XV, it was a quiet half on the Cardiff front, as he seemed to continue last season’s trick of going completely missing in games.
It wasn’t until 50 minutes had gone and Ireland had scored again, helped by some typically suspect Cuthbert defending, that Lloyd Williams and Gareth Anscombe were introduced at half back, and Kristian Dacey debuted at hooker. A slightly difficult start for the Blues trio as Ireland ran in their last try, Cuthbert again taking up an interesting position in the defensive line, but then things began to change. Lloyd Williams’ quick ball in midfield and Anscombe’s willingness to take the ball to the line set up Tipuric on the outside, who swapped passes with Newport duo Hallam Amos and Tyler Morgan before crossing the line. After Scott Andrews had also come on with an hour on the clock, Wales had steadied the game somewhat, and with the last play of the game some of the Cardiff contingent helped make the scoreline more respectable. More Williams quick delivery from the ruck to Anscombe, and the adopted Welshman picked a perfect ball wide for Cuthbert to do what he does best, finish from ten yards. Anscombe kicked both his conversions well, and it finished 35-21 to Ireland.
In the middle of the post-match inquisition, the Cardiff players came out looking pretty good. Lloyd Williams and Gareth Anscombe were both praised for their energy off the bench and were credited with playing a big part in turning around the Wales performance, alongside Kristian Dacey, who’s dynamism caught the eye. All three impressed to the extent that they have kept their places after Warren Gatland’s cull, taking the places of experienced British and Irish Lions James Hook, Mike Phillips and Richard Hibbard. Alex Cuthbert retains his place in the squad, perhaps that late try and a similarly poor performance from his wing rivals acting as a saving grace for now. Also keeping his place is Scott Andrews, who is likely to keep his squad status no matter what, as one of just three tight heads with Samson Lee an injury doubt.
Unfortunately, there was no space for Rhys Patchell, but as mentioned earlier, the whole training process will no doubt have been extremely beneficial to the young Cardiff fly-half. At just 22 years old he has a massive future ahead of him, and I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t involved in the outside-half discussion come the build up to Japan 2019.
So next up on the route to the World Cup for Wales was the reverse game against Ireland in Dublin. With Gatland naming his final 31-man squad after the match, it was a last real chance to impress, but as only Gethin Jenkins and Alex Cuthbert playing of Cardiff interest, there isn’t a massive amount to say. Jenkins had a solid game up to his usual standards, struggling slightly at the scrum but imperious with ball in hand at the breakdown, however Cuthbert struggled again out on the wing as the search continues for even a scrap of his 2013/14 form. Even with Cuthbert’s woes continuing, Wales avenged their Cardiff defeat with a 16-10 victory in a tight and tense game. Gatland went onto name his final squad, with Gethin and Sam Warburton certainties, Cuthbert, joined them, just about retaining Lord Warren’s trust. Joining the regular trio was Lloyd Williams and Cory Allen, both impressing enough to be in with a chance of playing on the biggest stage. Unfortunately it would only be a Cardiff quintet as, unsurprisingly, Scott Andrews was shown the door, and Gatland wasn’t prepared to take a risk on a Gareth Anscombe ankle injury that would’ve ruled him out of at least the first three pool matches.
Also missing out, as Gatland only decided to take two hookers into the tournament, was Kristian Dacey, yet just a week later he was still on the bench at the Millennium against Italy with Scott Baldwin nursing an injury. It does seem odd to only take two specialists when the squad can’t be changed 72 hours before a game, meaning prop Aaron Jarvis has been brushing up his line out throwing, but there we go, that’s Gatland for you! Of course it is disappointing for the Cardiff players to miss out, but the advantages are we’ve already seen Dacey and Andrews back in blue, and hopefully Anscombe will make an appearance next month.
Onto the Italy game then, and Gatland used the last warm-up match to give a fair few big names a run out. Sam Warburton made his first World Cup warm-up appearance, and Gethin Jenkins got another hour, meanwhile Cory Allen got his big chance to impress and Alex Cuthbert had yet another opportunity to find his form. In terms of the Cardiff players there wasn’t any surprises, Sam and Gethin were solid as ever, while Cory performed as we know he can, and Cuthbert continued his struggles. However, the big news from the game didn’t directly concern Cardiff, with former Arms Park man Leigh Halfpenny and Ospreys scrum-half Rhys Webb both picking up serious injuries that will rule them out of the tournament.
So Wales go into the tournament with five Blues in the squad, Sam the captain, Gethin nailed on for the loose head role, Lloyd Williams ready to take advantage of Rhys Webb’s misfortune and battle for the nine jersey, Cory Allen preparing to push Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams in the centre, and Alex Cuthbert searching desperately for any glimpse of form.
Away from Wales, there’s been Cardiff interest in games around the World over the summer. Over the pond, new signings Cameron Dolan and Blaine Scully started all three USA warm-ups against Canada in Ontario, Harlequins in Philadelphia, and Australia in Chicago. Cam Dolan held down a position in the second row, and got on the scoresheet in the victory over Canada, while Blaine Scully, who was named vice-captain by coach Mike Tolkin, jumped between the wing and full-back. Although USA are unlikely to make it through Pool B, it’ll be good for the pair to get more international experience before arriving at the Arms Park.
Another new signing looking to make his mark on the World stage before coming to Cardiff is Samoan Rey Lee-Lo. He only featured in the friendly against the Barbarians at the Olympic Stadium, sitting out the game against Wasps in Coventry, but it will be worth keeping an eye out for the centre as Samoa look to qualify out of Pool B.
So a fair bit of Cardiff interest coming up over the next four weeks at least, but will it keep going beyond that? A nation holds it’s breath…..