So we are now properly in the final stages of the Pro12 season with just three league games left until a long summer of watching Team Wales get battered by New Zealand ensues. Obviously it’s an interesting time of the season as play-off places are battled for and even Cardiff Blues have something to play for with sixth place still not completely out of reach.
However, there’s another side to the next few weeks from a Cardiff point of view that could prove interesting, the players who are playing for their Arms Parks futures. Chief Executive Richard Holland revealed earlier in the season that he and Danny Wilson are looking at slimming down the playing staff next season and stopping sending free players to Cardiff RFC and Pontypridd RFC, although then subsequently it transpired that Cardiff Blues would in fact be taking over the running of Cardiff RFC as an effective A team.
That’s another debate though, this is focused on who the winners and losers will be in that squad reduction, so let’s have a look at how the next few weeks may shape that;
We start off with the players I think have done enough to remain a Cardiff Blue for next season, and in fairness a lot of the squad have already done that. Obviously your Team Wales players and future internationals never had any concerns, so Sam Warburton, Gethin Jenkins, Lloyd Williams, Cory Allen, Tom James and newly committed Alex Cuthbert will be around, as well as Ellis Jenkins, Josh Turnbull, Josh Navidi and Kris Dacey.
Then the major non-Welsh qualified players in Rey Lee-Lo and Salesi Ma’afu will be here, and they should be joined by Jarrad Hoeata after a solid second season and due to our lack of locks. Also a player who could be part of the nWq quota next season is Tau Filise. The Cardiff Blues record appearance maker could well be retiring at the end of this year, but if he wanted to carry on playing he’d be more than welcome after recent performances.
Of the rest we have certainly seen some impressive performances. Dan Fish has been in excellent form all season, even when we were losing every week at the beginning of the season the Cardiff winger/full-back was earning plaudits and should be a big part of Wilson’s squad going forward. I think he should be joined in the backs by Gavin Evans who was playing at a similar level at the start of the year. The centre provides a very strong defensive option at 12 and, although he has not featured much since Christmas, provides good backup to Rey Lee Lo and is a decent squad player.
In the same vein as Gavin Evans is Macauley Cook who won’t have played as many minutes as he’d have liked this season but always gives his all for the team and his ability to cover the back row and second row could be invaluable. Also likely to remain in the forward is a prop from each side of the scrum. I think Thomas Davies will just about hold onto his place with one, or both, of Gethin Jenkins and new signing Rhys Gill probably going to be involved with Team Wales and Sam Hobbs off to Newport it leaves him as the only senior loosehead, until Brad Thyer and Corey Domachowski gain the necessary Pro12 experience.
On the tighthead side Wales U20 star Dillon Lewis who is one of a number of young players that have come through this year and performed well enough to retain their senior squad status. As mentioned above Brad Thyer has been good at loosehead and with the right exposure to Pro12 rugby could become a good player, while Ethan Lewis completes an exciting looking academy front row at hooker. In the backs Tomos Williams showed signs of potential from scrum half while Jarrod Evans has shown some real quality and maturity at fly-half. Outside them Aled Summerhill and Garyn Smith have both performed consistently well when called upon and fit the mould of attacking running rugby we are trying to play. Alongside younger academy players of Corey Domachowski, Rob Lewis, Liam Belcher, Kieron Assirratti, Seb Davies, Shane Lewis-Hughes, James Sheekey, Jordan Viggers, Morgan Sieniawski, Harri Millard, Owen Lane and Rhun Williams the future looks bright.
So from those who seem assured to have a contract at CAP next season to the players heading out the door. Rhys Patchell (Llanelli) and Sam Hobbs and Craig Mitchell (Newport) are already announced as leaving, while Rhys Williams, Geraint Walsh and Miles Normandale have moved into the Welsh domestic leagues during the course of the season.
We have also heard in recent weeks about a number of academy players being released with Elis Wyn Benham, Joe Jones, Mike Hale, Callum Hall and Callum Lewis we know for definite about. We have also seen both Ben Roach and Chris Knight named as ‘Wales 7s’ players by the WRU in recent weeks, suggesting they may be no longer contracted to Cardiff. They have been joined on 7s duty by Adam Thomas, Owen Jenkins and Tommy Isaacs over the last few weeks and realistically I can’t see a future at CAP for any of them. Maybe only Jenkins has any chance of a senior squad role, but continuing short-sided rugby commitments certainly hampers that.
Onto the players I expect to leave at the end of the season and we start with another former Wales 7s player in Jevon Groves who, despite a few early season senior games and captaining the A side, has been unheard of since Christmas and doesn’t seem to have a role to play at CAP. Chris Dicomidis will be off at the end of the season, almost certainly back to Pontypridd, although Merthyr are lurking, as the last of the Welsh Premiership players signed by Paul John and the Chef leave the club.
Matthew Rees will not have his contract renewed as a player but will be offered a coaching role by the club in either the new Cardiff RFC setup or as a part-time forwards coach side-by-side with an academy role. It’s probable he’ll accept that, but could be tempted by another year playing, Sir Stan at The Wern again has his chequebook ready. .
The big departure of the summer will be Manoa Vosawai as the Italian international’s contract runs out and a struggle with the nWq quota, as well as the arrival of number eight rival Nick Williams, means he will be off to pastures new. Newport was mentioned briefly but I’d be surprised if Vos didn’t end up in France. It will be a shame to see him go but I wish him all the best.
Lastly on the way out of CAP are fly-half Gareth Davies who has played just 79 senior rugby minutes this season, but shall be a legend forever due to THAT try against Toulon. At 32 it may well be the Welsh domestic leagues for him too, but the English Championship may provide an offer or two. Maybe he’ll finally make it to London Welsh! Someone who we do know almost certainly where they are heading is winger Tom Williams who seems set to stay with Llanelli where is on loan currently.
Now onto the players with something to prove heading into the last three games. In some weird way actually having a shot at sixth place actually may not be best for us in the sense that these players won’t have a chance to get decent game time to show how good they are, or aren’t. Danny Wilson has to pick the strongest matchday 23 until we are mathematically stranded in the lower half of the Pro12, but I’m sure Wilson has seen enough of these players in training and earlier in the season to make a decision on them.
Firstly up for debate as far as I can see are the two Americans, Blaine Scully and Cam Dolan, who could well be tempted by the new American Pro Rugby competition. Winger/full-back Scully probably has done enough to stay with a solid run of games during the Six Nations and two tries for the season being a half decent return from his first season. Dolan on the other hand hasn’t had enough game time and just a month ago I’d have been campaigning for him to leave, but a strong showing at second row against Munster a few weeks ago has changed my mind on him and I think he deserves the second year of his contract to try and prove a point on balance.
Dolan started at lock that night ahead of Lou Reed, odd considering Reed is a natural second row, and that makes me think he may well be in danger of leaving this summer. Having played a lot before Christmas, mainly off the bench, it seemed like he was set in Danny Wilson’s plans. But despite a good performance away at Montpellier he has now not played since the middle of February and with George Earle arriving from Llanelli and Seb Davies and Shane Lewis-Hughes emerging from the academy the Wales international, who will only be 29 at the start of next season, could find himself a former Cardiff player soon. Wouldn’t surprise me to see him at Newport, seems like their type of player.
The final forward who isn’t definite of staying is Scott Andrews. With Craig Mitchell now leaving it seems more certain he will stay as cover is needed at tighthead and Andrews has a year left on his contract, but he has played rarely this season and his suspect scrummaging means he’ll never be first choice. Salesi Ma’afu, Dillon Lewis and Filise if he stays will all be ahead of him, but until Kieron Assirratti comes into the senior setup full time Wilson will hope to hold onto Bubba in the face of supposed interest from Bath. I couldn’t tell you why they are interested though.
In the backs the big questions are centred around the number nine shirt. I think it was universally agreed at the start of the season that the scrum halves were in natural order of Lloyd Williams, Tavis Knoyle, Lewis Jones then Tomos Williams. Now Lloyd Williams, as I wrote above, is completely safe and had a brilliant season. While Lloyd was away at the Six Nations it was actually Tomos who deputised with sub appearances against Edinburgh, Treviso and Leinster, and starts versus Ulster and Glasgow. Although he didn’t set the World alight he certainly held his own.
So Tomos gets another season to prove his worth at senior level, leaving Lewis Jones and Tavis Knoyle in a scrap. Before I go on I will say that we do actually need four scrum halves, it’s just which four. I would’ve said last summer if Lewis Jones had left I wouldn’t have been disappointed. However, he’s been on the bench in the last five matches and been very good. He’s quick and likes a snipe around the fringes, and his service is very good. Tavis Knoyle on the other hand is just a bit slower and his decision making isn’t always the best. However his kicking is good and he’s a good runner. Is it worth keeping three first team scrum halves with another emerging?
Knoyle hasn’t played since the middle of February and won’t fancy being a bit part player again so may look to move on. With Dane Blacker earning decent reviews from Pontypridd RFC and Wales U18s there is a line of succession in place, but having heard no rumours of any nines leaving I think this may be more of a debate for next season. Something to keep an eye on though.
The final player in trouble, and it pains me to say this, is Richard Smith. After 19 appearances last season he’s only made three this year, in three of the early season Irish defeats although he did score a try against Munster. This means he hasn’t played senior professional rugby since late October 2015. Clearly he doesn’t feature in Danny Wilson’s plans and has played mainly for Cardiff RFC, but I do think it’s worth keeping hold of him. He’s a strong runner, good defender, can play at centre or on the wing and works bloody hard. We need to keep hold of players for the Rags next year and also he’s my favourite player and I don’t want to see him playing for Newport or Rotherham or someone. I love you Richard!