Team Report: Centre

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Well so far we’ve had Front Row –

And then we’ve had Lock –

Followed by Back Row –

Before going into the Backs –

So it’s onto centre and properly into the back line now. Historically Centre has been a somewhat talented area for Cardiff with the legendary post-war club and country partnership of Bleddyn Williams and Jack Matthews, Gerald Davies and Mike Hall all appearing in blu and black, before more recently Tom Shanklin, Gareth Thomas and Jamie Roberts all excelling, as well as Owen Williams before his cruel neck injury curtailed an extremely promising career.

The current crop of Centres will be led by this summer’s marquee signing, Rey Lee Lo from Hurricanes. The Samoa international has made two appearances for his country, in last year’s Autumn series, as well as playing 30 Super Rugby games in two spells at the Canes, and at the Crusaders, also scoring nine tries in 53 ITM Cup games for Counties Manukau, alongside Tana Umaga. Signed by Mark Hammett before his departure, Rey is a strong, quick and agile Centre, and will hopefully add some much needed dynamism to the Cardiff midfield, keep an eye out for him at the Rugby World Cup and hopefully for a long time after on the plastic CAP pitch.

Rey Lee-Lo escapes a Highlanders tackle

Joining Rey Lee-Lo at three-quarter will be the next Cardiff hope for Welsh great in Cory Allen. The Glamorgan Wanderers youth product has come through both the Cardiff Academy and Wales age grade systems, being named Most Improved Player at the 2012 Junior World Championship, under the coaching of Danny Wilson. He joined the Cardiff RFC ranks in 2011, going on to make 26 appearances and scoring eight tries across three season, making his senior Blues debut in the same year against Newcastle in the Anglo-Welsh Cup. 2013-14 was Allen’s breakthrough season, making his Wales debut against Argentina in the Autumn Internationals and 12 club appearances, only a shoulder injury stopping him playing more and possibly making his Six Nations bow, although he was still included in Warren Gatland’s squad to tour South Africa in June 2014. Last season he appeared 20 times in a blue shirt and was arguably our best back, and at just 22 he will be around for many years to come, assuming we keep hold of him. Unfortunately we may have to wait until after the Rugby World Cup to see him pair up with Rey Lee Lo, as Cory has been included in Wales’ 31 man squad, but hopefully it will be a welcome boost to the season when they both arrive back in Cardiff.

Hopefully Cory Allen will score plenty of tries when he returns from the World Cup

Until then the likely centre pairing will be the experienced domestic duo of Gavin Evans and Tommy Isaacs. Between them they have played for all four Welsh Pro clubs and Gloucester, with Evans appearing 78 times for Llanelli before arriving at Cardiff in 2009, meanwhile Isaacs started his career at Newport, before heading to the Ospreys for five years, signing for Cardiff after a brief spell in the West Country.They also have international experience under their belts, Evans making his one and only Wales appearance against the Pacific Islands in 2006, while Isaacs is a Sevens World Cup Winner. With Gavin Evans, you know what you’re going to get. He’s become somewhat of an Arms Park stalwart, with over 100 appearances in six years, including 24 last season, he’s a vital part of the Cardiff midfield. Most comfortable at 12, Evans isn’t anything special when it comes to an inside centre, which isn’t meant as an insult, more a statement of fact in the sense that he won’t be taking on the crash ball, he isn’t particularly light on his fight or a skilled footballer, and he’s not overly susceptible to many moments of magic, but he’s dependable, provides good ball to those outside, on occasion provides a line break, and is solid in defence. Meanwhile outside him at 13, Tom Isaacs is still a somewhat unknown quantity in a blue shirt. Joining halfway through last season with an injury, he only made 11 appearances, with six off the bench, so a run of games during the World Cup will certainly do him no harm. He looks a bit more dynamic to Evans, and doubling up as a winger he has no problem with ball in hand, but I have to say that last season he did appear to be carrying a pound or two, so hopefully after a full pre-season he can gain that match sharpness and provide a bit of go-forward ball in midfield.

Also hoping to capitalise on the World Cup, and challenge Evans and Isaacs for the title of interim centre, will be one of very positives to come out of last season, Garyn Smith. The Pontypridd product, who is still technically part of the Cardiff Academy system, has spent the early part of his senior career at his hometown club, but last season broke into the first team at the Arms Park in a big way. After impressive performances in the LV Cup against Llanelli and Newcastle, he made his debut in the last two minutes at Edinburgh the week after, but had to wait until after Christmas for another opportunity, again in the LV Cup away at Wasps. This triggered his real first team breakthrough, playing half an hour in Treviso, before going on to make three successive starts against Glasgow, Llanelli and Ospreys in the Pro12. Smith rounded off the season with a try off the bench against Zebre and will be hoping, like myself, to be given more opportunities to cross the whitewash this season. After a successful summer at the Junior World Championship with four appearances for Wales U20s, and a try against France, it’s important not to rush him into a permanent starting spot, but with the likes of Rey Lee-Lo and Cory Allen to learn off, the future is bright for Garyn Smith.

Garyn Smith could have a massive future at Cardiff and Wales

Out of the specialist centres and into the utility backs, and we do have an abundance of them, is there quality in there? Well, we’ll see. I’ll start with a cursory mention of Tavis Knoyle in the centre, after his enforced cameo at Newport, where actually he didn’t perform too badly. He also made his Wales debut at centre, but with Lloyd Williams away on international duty at the World Cup, Knoyle will be first choice scrum half for a few months, and I think only a serious injury crisis will see him line up in midfield again. More likely to act as cover in the centres are former Pontypridd duo Geraint Walsh and Adam Thomas. Both are comfortable in the midfield and at full-back, and both arrived at the Arms Park last summer from Sardis Road, Walsh are a successful campaign that saw him named Premiership Player of the Year 2013/14, and Thomas having retired from Wales Sevens after 24 tournaments. Thomas had the better of the first campaigns, making 20 appearances in all competitions and bagging three Pro12 tries, whereas Walsh struggled to hold down a regular first team place, only playing in 9 games. Although Thomas didn’t look too out of place in the professional game, I fear Walsh’s poor contribution is just more evidence of the widening gap between the Premiership and Pro12, where the A team entering the British and Irish Cup will come into it’s own. As it happens, I think both of these players will be good additions to the A team with the experience of the BIC and Premiership, and personal experience aiding the young players the side is mainly aimed at.

Finally, there are two other names I’d throw into the ring of the centres, and they are Richard Smith and Aled Summerhill. In the case of Smith he is a natural winger, whereas Summerhill is more confident at full-back, however both can cover successfully in the midfield. I will expand on them both more in the outside backs blog which completes the team report, but Richard Smith has deputised well a number of times at centre, most notably in my memory away at Toulon in 2014 against Basteareaud and Giteau, despite the defeat. Summerhill came through the academy as a centre, won Premiership Player of the Year at Pontypridd last year as full back, and started Cardiff’s pre-season win at Bristol on the wing, showing his versatility which could be put to great use this season by Danny Wilson.



Despite both first choice centres being away at the World Cup at the start of the season, there’s still strength in depth with the experienced Gavin Smith and Tom Isaacs, as well as the exciting young Garyn Smith, however it will be good to see Rey Lee-Lo lining up at 12 and 13. The good news for centre is that the versatility of our backs means we won’t, or shouldn’t, ever be short, with players mentioned like Richard Smith, and Summerhill, Adam Thomas and Geraint Walsh and even Knoyle and Patchell if need be. Things are looking strong in midfield.

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