Now the big lads of the forwards are out of the way it’s time to move onto the quick men in the backs, starting with the link players at half-back. In Cardiff terms this has been a position we have struggled in over the past four or five years as players have come and gone while no partnerships have really been nailed down.
The main culprit of that has been fly-half as the number nine jersey has been largely claimed by Lloyd Williams over the last five seasons. With 115 appearances under his belt at just 26 years old, we have seen Lloyd just get better and better in front of our eyes to the point where he had his best season last year. The new attacking style suits his quick ball and creates space for the sniping around the fringes he enjoys so much.
I’ve said a number of times on Twitter that I believe Lloyd should have a much bigger part to play in the Wales setup as I certainly believe him to be a superior scrum-half to Gareth Davies. However while Warren Gatland continues to ignore him as long as he gets released back to Cardiff in international windows we will keep benefiting.
While Williams has been the first choice scrum half comfortably over that time his first receiver has been chopping and changing somewhat with Jason Tovey, Gareth Davies and Rhys Patchell all having a go. The time has come though for a true half-back partnership to be formed, and Gareth Anscombe seems to be the man to complete that.
There was no doubt that the jury was out on the young New Zealand born (he was born in New Zealand, you know) player arriving from the Chiefs and he did not cover himself in glory during his first season. A struggle to adapt to Northern Hemisphere club rugby resulted in a number of kick charge downs and no stand-out moments, as well as a call up straight to the Team Wales setup meant a disjointed campaign.
However, after missing all of the first half of last year with an injury picked up at the Rugby World Cup, Anscombe returned to the side with aplomb and collected a number of man-of-the-match awards as the side’s form improved massively. That was no coincidence as his partnership with not only Williams but Rey Lee-Lo at inside centre created an excellent attacking environment.
There is already talk over the summer about Anscombe seriously challenging Dan Biggar for the Wales number ten jersey this season, having mainly been used at full-back on the international scene so far, and I truly believe that he can. His ability to stand flat at first receiver and still have all the time he wants, as well as excellent playmaking abilities and a surprising change of pace means he has all the attributes of a top fly-half. Hopefully he reaches his undoubted potential in a blue jersey!
Arriving to provide some competition for the number ten jersey, and act as cover during international periods, is Steve Shingler who has been signed from Llanelli. After making 63 appearances across four seasons at Parc y Scarlets, as well as spending two years at London Irish he has plenty of experience at just 25 years old. Add in the versatility to cover at centre and full-back and the Gorseinon product could be a shrewd signing.
Many have seen Shingler as a kind of straight swap for Rhys Patchell but what he will offer is a solid presence all season long. Something which is greatly overlooked when it comes to competing in the Pro12 is the ability to put out a good quality side when international players are off on national team duty. With Patchell likely to be involved in Team Wales at some point in the near future, to have Shingler ready and available all year will be a huge asset.
Battling Shingler for that role as primary backup to Anscombe is first year senior professional Jarrod Evans. Last season was the big breakthrough season for Evans as he made his debut vs then Champions Glasgow in the November, going on to make 17 appearances overall and scoring 29 points. This earned him a call up to the Wales U20 Junior World Championship squad where he appeared in all five matches.
Now I’m not saying Evans is the finished article but I am a big fan of the young fly-half and there’s no doubting he has the talent to go far. At just 20 years old he’s more than comfortable taking the ball up to the line and has a creative spark, but he does need to improve his general leadership of the back line. As well as that he’s not been blessed with the biggest frame leading to a few defensive frailties, mainly tackling technique. However, with plenty of years ahead of him there’s nothing that can’t be worked on.
Looking to join the three fly-half candidates and challenge Lloyd Williams for the number nine jersey are three more than capable scrum-halves. First up Lewis Jones is about to begin his seventh season at the Arms Park having been released by the academy and then re-signed after impressing for Pontypridd. He is on 86 overall appearances since then having spent most of the second half of last season as second chance to Williams.
This was a surprise to a lot of people, me included, as most expected Welsh international Tavis Knoyle to be in the primary position for second choice, and indeed he was the replacement for Lloyd during the World Cup. However he didn’t do much to impress in the period, lacking some speed from the base of the ruck and vastly over-using the tap-and-go penalty to waste a few good positions. The fact though that a player of Knoyle’s quality is battling it out for the second choice shows the competition we currently have at scrum half.
Rounding off the scrum-half ranks is a player, like Jarrod Evans, with a huge future in a Cardiff shirt. Tomos Williams has been tipped for the top by a number of people in the Welsh game after some impressive performances towards the end of last season. Unfortunately for him 2015/16 was not quite the full breakthrough season it was hoped to be after a pre-season injury, making this upcoming year a big one.
There’s no doubt he has the speed of delivery from set pieces and the breakdown to go with speed of foot to snipe around the fringes, he’s very much in the Lloyd Williams mould of a scrum half. However, to go with that he has a wicked step meaning he has plenty to offer outside of scrum-half duties. With more game time and experience his reading of the game and speed of delivery will only increase giving him a real chance of international honours in the future.
Not looking too shabby overall in the half-back department. International and Pro12 experience galore with plenty more to look forward to. Injuries generally seem to target this area of the squad but if we can avoid them, particularly Gareth Anscombe, I think an exciting season of back play is in store as there’s plenty of quality outside them, starting with the centres next up. Come on Cardiff!!