The Anglo-Welsh Cup swings into life this weekend for the Welsh clubs as Cardiff Blues start with an away trip to Exeter Chiefs. After taking a year off for the World Cup the competition returns to provide fringe and youth players the chance to stake a claim for regular first team rugby while international players are away with Autumn series games.
Cardiff have pedigree in this tournament of course as the only Welsh champions of the tournament back in 2009. Only Tom James, who scored a try in the final, Gethin Jenkins and Fa’ao Filise remain from the 12-50 win over Gloucester at Twickenham, although none will have any involvement in the Anglo-Welsh Cup these days unless we return to the latter stages once again.
Our opponents on Sunday are also former champions, having won the competition in 2013/14 beating Northampton in the final. That year they finished top of Cardiff’s group although we didn’t actually play each other as the Anglo-Welsh Cup format is that the teams in pool three, as we are this year, play all four teams from pool two, with pools one and four doing the same thing and the winner of each group qualifying for the semi-final.
As such this year we find ourselves in a group with Harlequins, Wasps and Bristol this season but facing Ospreys (home), Sale (away), Worcester (home) and of course Exeter (away). Thanks to Pro12 scheduling the tournament actually began for the English sides last weekend, with Quins beating Exeter, while Bristol and Wasps lost to Worcester and Sale, respectively.
Our only previous encounter with the Chiefs on the field in this tournament came in 2010/11, almost exactly six years to the date of Sunday’s game, when the two sides drew 23-23 thanks to a last minute kick from academy fly-half Joseph Griffin (answers on a postcard what he’s up to now).
Plenty of current players, then in the youth of their careers, featured that day as Kris Dacey, Macauley Cook, Scott Andrews, James Down, Josh Navidi, Lloyd Williams, Tom James and try scorer Dan Fish all played, while four other squad members are still playing professional rugby elsewhere.
Regional development pathway manager Richard Hodges, who will be in charge of the side over the next two games, spoke this week about how good of an opportunity this still is for the young players to gain valuable experience, while also announcing that Garyn Smith will lead the side during the pool stages.
Plenty of youngsters have been given the chance to prove themselves under Smith’s stewardship, with 13 players currently in the academy selected as well as five players only recently graduated. With an average age of 21 there isn’t a lot of experience but it’s certainly an exciting, fresh lineup as 11 players will make their senior debuts for the club either as academy players or new signings.
Cardiff team vs Exeter: Rhun Williams, Aled Summerhill, Harri Millard, Garyn Smith (c), James Beal, Jarrod Evans, Dane Blacker; Brad Thyer, Kirby Myhill, Dillon Lewis, Jack Davies, James Down, Seb Davies, Shane Lewis-Hughes, James Sheekey
Replacements: Liam Belcher, Rhys Carre, Anton Peikrishvili, Hemi Barnes, Morgan Sieniawski, Rhodri Davies, Ben Jones, Owen Lane
There will be a few very unfamiliar faces amongst the wave of new players, so here’s a run down of some of those involved on Sunday;
James Beal – Signed for Cardiff RFC in the summer after graduating from Cardiff Met and having played for British Universities 7s. Has scored five tries in six games for the Rags, also scored for Cardiff A against London Scottish last month in the British and Irish Cup after helping Cardiff Blues 7s win the Premiership 7s Plate during pre-season.
Dane Blacker – Tier Two Academy scrum-half who also won the Premiership 7s Plate in August. Impressed with his pace on that occasion and has appeared a few times for Pontypridd this season, scoring against Llanelli RFC at Parc y Scarlets. Only 18 he has been drafted into the squad due to international call-ups, serious injuries and departing players.
Jack Davies – Under 18 squad member who has appeared five times for Cardiff RFC this season, scoring one try. Former Cowbridge Comprehensive pupil will be making his debut.
Rhodri Davies – Signed from Llandovery RFC as short term injury cover during the scrum-half crisis, the Wales 7s man will start on the bench on Sunday. The 25 year old was released by Scarlets as a youngster bit has gone on to make 61 appearances for the Drovers, scoring 16 tries.
Exeter on the other hand have named a somewhat more experienced team including 25-cap Italian international centre Michele Campagnaro, full-back Phil Dollman with 150+ club appearances and eight-cap England international Tom Johnson. Former Cardiff players Damian Welch and Ben White are included in the pack.
Exeter team vs Cardiff: Phil Dollman, Max Bodilly, Michele Campagnaro, Tom Hendrickson, Ian Whitten, Joe Simmonds, Will Chudley; Billy Keast, Shaun Malton, Jack Owlett, Ollie Atkins, Damian Welch, Ben White, Sam Simmonds, Tom Johnson (c)
Replacements: Jack Innard, Will Norton, Marcus Street, Josh Caulfield, Tom Lawday, Stuart Townsend, Harvey Skinner, Harry Strong
Sunday will certainly be an interesting encounter with the largely inexperienced side led by Richard Hodges going up against Exeter’s more weathered XV and renowned academy members. Although performance is important, I don’t feel the result is as much with this team playing together for the first time and only having a week to train.
I would like to see players really putting their all into taking a chance to impress at a professional level, whatever the result is after that I cannot complain. This is a fantastic chance for the youngsters involved and I am quite excited as this is certainly a promising batch of academy members and graduates. I hope my optimism isn’t let down, come on Cardiff!!!
Luke Pearce (RFU) – The Pontypool-born official is still only in the early stages of his career at 28, but thought of very highly in the English game. Once refereed us to an Anglo-Welsh Cup over Wasps at CAP, apart from that he has never officiated Cardiff.