With the front row and lock all profiled it’s time to finish off the forwards with the back row, historically where Cardiff have been strongest since 2003. Martyn Williams, Xavier Rush, Robin Copeland and Dan Baugh have all been involved before the current crop, leaving some big shoes to fill indeed.
As things stand though the back row class of 2016/17 is certainly living up to expectation, at least on paper. Starting at the top they are lead by current Wales and British & Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton at flanker, the first of two Cardiff players to hold a National Dual Contract. The terms of that restrict him to just 16 appearances a season, but it’s generally not a problem between international windows and well timed injuries.
Last season it was the eight Cardiff appearances to take him up to 92 overall, just 26 more caps than he has at international level. Of course Sam is an undoubtedly high quality player, but is it worth disrupting a settled team every time he needs to get a bit of game time pre-internationals? I’m not so sure. Anyway, after a disappointing summer with Wales he may actually be fit for the start of the season so hopefully we can get our full compliment of games out of him.
Ready waiting in the wings to challenge Warburton at both club and country is Ellis Jenkins. After a fantastic 2015/16 season, which was capped off with the Cardiff Rugby Life’ Player of the Year Award, Jenkins was called up to Wales’ summer tour of New Zealand making his debut of the bench in the first test.
Despite being only 23 this will already be Ellis’ fifth season of senior rugby and he looks set to add many more Cardiff caps to the 62 he has already won. An almost complete package of a player with incredible work ethic, top defensive and breakdown skills, plus the ability to produce a cheeky offload, he will be a key figure in the upcoming season, and hopefully for many more to come before Wales come calling full-time.
The third member of Cardiff’s Wales back row trio is Josh Turnbull, although unfortunately the big man has been resigned to tackle bag holding since his recall to the national set up for the 2016 Six Nations. From a biased point of view I would say he deserves a bigger role than that after some impressive performances since signing from Llanelli in 2014.
It will be interesting to see how Turnbull is utilised this year with a number of back row options and a distinct shortage of senior second rows. It is no secret that Turnbull prefers to play at flanker and in fact left Llanelli because he was being used a lock too much, but he is undoubtedly an excellent number 4 and may well be required to step in from time to time.
Joining him in the ranks of part-time lock from the back row will be Macauley Cook and Cameron Dolan. Both players filled in at second row during the course of last season and are both equally adept at blindside flanker as well as number 8. Cook is now into his seventh season at the Arms Park and three appearances of his 100 cap. Although he’s not likely to ever trouble the international scene, he is the type of solid Pro12 player that the squad needs a base of to challenge throughout the season.
Dolan on the other hand is at international level for his home country the United States and appeared in both their summer tests. He didn’t have the easiest first seasons in Cardiff making just eight appearances, and only four starts, restricted mainly to A team and Cardiff RFC outings. However, I was impressed particularly by two appearances at lock towards the end of the season and I hope he’ll get more of a chance this year.
Providing the battle for the number eight jersey this year will be an established Cardiff favourite and a very experienced new signing. New signing Nick Williams arrives from Ulster to provide compeition for Josh Navidi after Manoa Vosawai’s exit and with two very contrasting options in the position the scope for the team’s style widens.
We of course all know what Josh Navidi is about as the academy graduate is set to enter his eighth season and add to his 116 appearances. The dreadlock wearing back rower is all-action, making tackles, hitting rucks and gaining yards all over the field. A flanker by trade he is an asset at the breakdown while his transformation to number eight has been aided by a willingness to take the ball into contact and speed into space on the other side of a defensive line.
Williams though is more of a cultured eight. He’s the size you’d expect of the man at the back of the scrum, with a huge tackle in him but less proficient at the breakdown. He’s also more than happy to smash through contact with ball in hand. However his difference comes in the shape of some All Black flair and he is adept at the offload from a tackle, drawing men in and creating the space. A very exciting new signing indeed as long as he stays injury free.
Looking to learn off Williams and Navidi, as well as the other back row experience, is youngster James Sheekey. After a 2015/16 season plagued by injuries which restricted him to just five Cardiff RFC games all season I don’t think many expected him to arrive in the senior setup over the summer. However Danny Wilson obviously sees something in him and at 6’5″ and 18st while not yet 22 years old he was the physical make up of a good eight.
It will be interesting to see Sheekey’s development in what is a strong back row line-up for this season. Fingers have to be crossed for not too many injuries or international call-ups in the second/back row department as where they cover each other we could end up short, but the quality in the players we do have is undoubted. That’s the forwards over and done with, now onto the backs…