Team Report: Front Row

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The new season is very close to coming around, and after revealing that he wanted to work with reduced squad in 2016/17, Danny Wilson has followed that through by letting 21 players go that have featured for Cardiff in senior rugby.

Alongside making seven new signings and promoting a number of academy players to join the senior squad full-time the playing staff has changed drastically from last season. As with every summer, this series of articles will have an in-depth look at each position and provide some information on each player.

Loosehead Prop

The men in the number one shirt seems a good place to start, and when it comes to loosehead props in Cardiff, or in Wales for that matter, there is only one name that comes to mind, Gethin Jenkins. The club captain will start his 12th season at the Arms Park in the coming campaign, split up by a season at Toulon, and has been awarded a testimonial year benefiting #StayStrongForOws and the NSPCC.

Although he will turn 36 in November Melon is showing no signs of slowing up on the pitch as he looks to improve on his 169 appearances for Cardiff, of which 15 came last season, and 126 Wales caps. Having won his Wales test place back in New Zealand over the summer Gethin has made no secret of his desire to add to his five British and Irish Lions caps back in NZ next year, meaning he will need to have a big season in blue to prove himself worthy of the Lions jersey.

Of course it goes without saying that Jenkins can benefit the young looseheads in the squad, but as the club captain he can set an excellent example for all the younger members off the field as well as on it. When he’s fit and firing there is nobody in the rugby world who would leave Gethin out of their playing squad but it’s important that Wilson does not overuse him to avoid burnout, and also to give those younger players a chance.

Gethin Jenkins is still aiming to perform for Cardiff and Wales

Joining Jenkins in the loosehead ranks next season will be Rhys Gill as the academy graduate returns to the Arms Park after seven years away. Graduating into the senior ranks for the 2005/06 season he only made six first team appearances, mainly playing for Cardiff RFC where he reached the 50-cap mark. Frustrated by a lack of first team rugby he moved to Saracens in 2009.

Gill was a huge hit in London, making over 130 appearances while winning three Aviva Premierships and a European Cup. During this time he also won six Wales caps, but with Gatland’s Law biting he has decided to move back home to increase his international selection chances and start a company with former Cardiff and Bristol player Ross Johnston.

At 29 Cardiff can certainly continue to benefit from a Rhys Gill in his prime and I think he will be a terrific asset to the squad throughout the season and for a good few years to come. The battle for the number one shirt at club and country level will be interesting between Gill and Jenkins, but sit back and enjoy it as it only can work out well for us.

Rhys Gill in Cardiff action the first time round

Looking to push for loosehead selection are young players Brad Thyer and Corey Domachowski. Both have followed a similar career path to this point, joining the Cardiff Blues academy, gaining Wales youth honours up to U20 level and going from a Pontypridd RFC allocation to the Cardiff Blues senior squad last season. Thyer though, at 23, is three years older than Domachowski and as such made nine appearances to Corey’s one last year.

Despite being of the same rugby generation they are drastically differing players. Domachowski is a unit, he’s 6ft+ and 18st, a prop moulded in an old fashioned manner who is a strong scrummager and big carrier. Thyer on the other hand is lighter which, although doesn’t make him weak in the scrum, means his carrying and handling skills are his main asset and aids our attacking game.

Brad Thyer had a strong breakthrough season

Hooker

Moving on to the middle men in the front row and again starting with the experience as Matthew Rees prepares to turn 36 and start his fourth season in the capital. For the second summer running he has been awarded a one-year contract extension and after 18 appearances last season to take his overall caps to 52 it’s probably the correct decision.

Like Gethin Jenkins, Rees has been there and done it at all levels with 60 Wales caps and a former captain of the country, as well as over 170 appearances for Llanelli. He does need to be game managed to retain the match fitness and allow the waiting youngsters a chance to shine, but there’s no doubt Smiler can continue to be a key player in 2016/17, and develop into a top coach beyond that.

Matthew Rees is sticking around for another season

Generally the first choice hooker over the last three seasons or so has been Kristian Dacey. He’s been a reliable performer in that time despite not being the strongest scrummager as he makes up for it with his open play work, managing to bag 13 tries in 96 appearances. Dacey will be entering his 7th season with Cardiff and at just 27 is set to break the 100 cap mark and go well beyond.

Despite these consistent performances for Cardiff over the last few years Dacey has never really got any Wales recognition as Scott Baldwin and Ken Owens have switched the hooker role between them. Kris has been mainly resigned to tackle bag holding duties which is a shame given his ability around the field, but perhaps understandable as both rivals are better at scrum time.

Kristian Dacey is hoping to crack the Wales setup

Brought in to challenge Dacey for the starting hooker spot is Kirby Myhill who joins Cardiff from Llanelli. Having made his debut down west in 2011 he went on to make 72 appearances at Parc y Scarlets but has recently found his playing time diminished by Ken Owens and the emergence of Emyr Phillips, triggering his attempt at a fresh start at the Arms Park.

Danny Wilson knows Myhill well as he made the hooker captain of his Wales U20 team at the 2012 Junior World Championships where the young Welsh team finished third, beating New Zealand’s Baby Blacks along the way. He obviously still rates the 24 year-old to sign him now for Cardiff and if there’s one thing we learnt from last season it’s ‘in Danny we trust’.

Looking to challenge the three senior players are two young hookers fresh from making their mark at Wales U20 level. Ethan Lewis graduated the junior Welsh set-up two years ago now and has gone on to make 26 appearances for Cardiff RFC in that time. He also tasted professional rugby for the first time last season making three starts and eleven substitute appearances in the Pro12 and Europe.

Ethan Lewis impressed in his debut season

Two years behind Lewis having just finished with the Wales U20s after a Junior World Championship campaign is Liam Belcher. Despite having only just turned 20 years old he has made a number of Pontypridd appearances on the way to winning and losing a Premiership Final and will likely be looking at the BIC and Anglo-Welsh teams next season as a stepping stone to the senior squad.

Both players have generated some very excited whispers from inside the Arms Park and certainly contribute to what is a strong line-up at hooker for the coming season. With Rees providing the experience, Myhill and Dacey both tried and tested Pro12 hookers and Lewis and Belcher highly rated youngsters, every demographic is covered and the position is set to be strong for a few years to come.

Tighthead Prop

To continue the trend in this front row report of starting each position with the experienced player, the tighthead I will start with is the one and only Fa’ao Filise. Despite turning 39 at the end of last season he managed to make 21 appearances overall, playing over 1000 minutes and taking his total caps to a Cardiff Blues record of 217. As a result of this he has been rewarded with another year contract.

The King of Tonga will now go into his eleventh season with Cardiff and still appears to be as fit as ever, providing a go-to ball carrying ability and seriously strong scrum. He will be battling it out with Salesi Ma’afu for the number three jersey this season as the Australian international attempts to return to the matchday squad after missing the end of last season.

Despite signing last December from Toulon, Ma’afu had to wait until the end of January for his debut, going on to make six straight starts but never making it past 50 minutes. He looked heavy and very unfit in that time but hopefully after a full pre-season and no disciplinary issues he will be a big asset to the side, as on his day he is a world class tighthead. At 33 he still has a few years left in the tank and certainly has experience to pass on to the younger players.

A big pre-season is in order for Salesi Ma’afu

Serving as a back-up to the southern hemisphere tightheads will be Scott Andrews, starting his 9th season with Cardiff. Despite being a long-serving member of the squad and currently on 119 caps, as well as 12 Wales appearances under his belt, many thought last season may have been his last in the capital as he made just four substitute appearances all season.

He has however been retained for the last year of his contract, likely because of his ability to cover hooker and lock in absolute emergencies. As well as that I think Andrews is a contender to lead the A side in the BIC and Anglo-Welsh Cup, as an experienced fringe member of the squad he would be suited to this role, and spending a lot of time with the players likely to be in those teams while playing for Cardiff RFC.

As with loosehead prop and hooker, there are two exciting youngsters waiting in the wings to challenge for the tighthead position. Both Dillon Lewis and Kieron Assiratti were involved with the Wales U20 squad at the Junior World Championship over the summer, and particularly Lewis played a big part. Both have also impressed while spending time with Pontypridd early in their careers and have earned many plaudits amongst those on the Arms Park inside.

Lewis in particular has been getting people talking after making 13 appearances in his debut season last year and looking very assured for a 20 year old in the Pro12. A strong scrummager and very impressive carrier he looks to be the complete package and some are even tipping him to be involved with the senior Wales setup before 2016/17 is over.

Assiratti on the other hand is a year younger than Lewis and will mainly look to impress in the A side this season, but if both can reach their full potential then there are many great years ahead at tighthead. With two exciting young players in each front row position at Cardiff the future is looking very bright indeed, and with Wales U20 naming a full Cardiff front row on two occasions at the Junior World Championship then the senior team will certainly benefit too.

Overall I’d describe Cardiff’s front row options on the whole as very healthy. With Ben Leung having signed for Cardiff RFC over the summer as well who can cover both sides of the scrum, there is definite strength in depth. Of course the team must be picked on form first, but it will be interesting to see how Danny Wilson uses the young players as they will need exposure to professional rugby. If there was ever a man to whip a front rower into shape though it’s Wilson.

So that’s the big men done and dusted, next up is lock

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