February has come around all too quickly once again, and international games swing back into action, helping make the Pro12 an even more sub-standard league than it already is. As ever there is Cardiff involvement around the globe, and I’ve summed up the upcoming action for our players below.
Interim Wales head coach Rob Howley has named his initial 36-man squad for the 2017 Six Nations, with the main headline news being the replacing of Sam Warburton as captain with Ospreys lock Alun Wyn Jones.
I’ve written a full piece on this at the link below, but it’s probably the right move for both the player and us at the Cardiff Blues, meaning he does not have the pressure of being the national team captain on his shoulders, and can concentrate on his own personal playing performance, especially now there’s such fierce competition for places in the back row.
Sam Warburton loses the Wales captaincy, but he has to be a shoe-in for the back row: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2017/01/17/warburton-is-still-super-sam/
Obviously he does still lead Cardiff on occasion, but without the tag of club captain he’s much freer to lead by his example, although he won’t be able to shake the tag of ‘senior player’ for the rest of his career. A career, I might add, that should include many more Wales caps yet, as our best operator by far in the dark arts of the breakdown area.
Joining Sam in the squad are three other Cardiff Blues representatives in Kristian Dacey, Scott Andrews and Alex Cuthbert.
Flanker Sam is included after an impressive two months in a Cardiff shirt, starting six straight games in the blue shirt for the first time in almost two and a half years and getting back to full fitness, as well as turning in some impressive performances along the way.
Hooker Dacey is rightfully rewarded for some fine recent form, two tries in five games over December and into the New Year, as well as some big defensive shifts, mean that he brushes off the challenge of Ospreys’ Sam Parry in retaining his squad place.
Andrews and Cuthbert meanwhile are slightly different circumstances. The general feel is that the tighthead is only selected due to a lack of other options in Wales. Youngsters Dillon Lewis and Leon Brown are not yet old enough to challenge, while the majority of the Welsh professional clubs use foreign tightheads leaving Andrews as national team cover.
Everyone knows the struggles of Alex Cuthbert, as he desperately tries to regain the confidence to recover his form. A disappointing November international period, where he wasn’t helped by being played out of position, has been followed by a similarly error strewn few weeks for Cardiff.
Tries against Ulster and Bath seemed to suggest he’d turned a corner, but an error to concede a try against Llanelli, as well as dropping the ball over the line against Glasgow, meant that he was dropped for the trip to Pau. As such he probably shouldn’t have been included on form, but there was no doubt the Wales setup would include him.
Is it the correct decision, for player or team? Personally I’d suggest not. Liam Williams, George North and Leigh Halfpenny probably form the starting back three these days, and with Ashton Hewitt and Steff Evans also included in the squad there is sufficient cover to allow Cuthbert to regain his form at domestic level first, but hopefully he’ll come good on the big stage.
The quality is clearly still there as the lines he is running are still excellent, and there is no questioning his work ethic, but he’s just seriously lacking in the confidence to execute what’s going on in his mind. It’s a tough time, but I’m rooting for him to go well!
Only four Cardiff players included in the Wales squad is a relatively small number, down on the nine from a year ago, but there are mostly valid reasons for the decrease in representation.
Lloyd Williams is desperately out of form, although Tomos Williams has not been able to remove him from the starting role, meaning they are leapfrogged by Scarlets’ Aled Davies, while Gareth Anscombe’s injury mean he hasn’t played since the November internationals and is left out with Owen Williams taking his place.
Cory Allen is another who has had fitness and form issues, while Tom James is currently suffering from illness, but even if he was fit and had scored 100 tries he would still be ignored by the Wales hierarchy. Finally for the backs, Matthew Morgan is seemingly in an international wilderness having missed out on selection again.
In the forwards it’s largely injury issues as Gethin Jenkins and Josh Turnbull are long term absentees and will miss the whole tournament, while I sincerely hope Rhys Gill has fitness problems as otherwise there is no justification to ignore his good form as Cardiff’s starting loosehead for a converted tighthead in Rhodri Jones.
Ellis Jenkins just hasn’t played enough rugby in the back row, and is a victim of the ongoing riches that Wales possess there, but his time will come. Josh Navidi meanwhile is the picture of consistency, but is unlikely to ever really break the national side. One of those excellent Pro12 players who just can’t make the leap, although I’ve no doubt he’d do a job if required at international level.
One way of looking at the lack of Cardiff representation is a positive angle in that we will now retain a number of important players for the Pro12 games over the upcoming weeks. With home games against Connacht, Munster and Treviso coming up, as well as a trip to Edinburgh, they will be no end of help.
We should now be looking at four bonus point wins, which could even re-ignite an outside chance of a top six challenge, but is certainly a chance to return to good form. When you consider Edinburgh are losing 12 players to Scotland, Treviso always have a much changed squad missing Italian internationals and Connacht will be hit by a few Irish call-ups, we have to be favourites for all four games.
With the players retained we can keep them fit on our terms, there’s less frustration if they get injured in a Cardiff game, and of course we get full benefit when they’re fit. It could add pressure knowing that we should be winning those games, but with experience also amongst the remaining squad, we have a great chance.
There are issues, though, with having fewer players selected. Firstly, it’s a sad reflection on our current form that so many of our squad have been overlooked. Obviously it’s not been the most impressive few weeks with only two wins in nine Pro12 matches and some pretty abject performances, so it’s no surprised that the number of Cardiff representatives was so small, but it’s still disappointing.
Potentially though there could be a somewhat different problem down the lead, and it’s more of an off-field issue. With the Rugby Services Agreement signed between the clubs and the WRU, it agreed the payments that the Union would make to the Welsh Pro12 sides for access to those players that they wished to call up to the national team.
As such, the more players you contribute to the Wales squad, the more money you get from the WRU, hence why Ospreys will get more money than Newport, for example. Now a few seasons ago, for the financial year ending May 2014, the Cardiff Blues’ parent company made a loss and this was mentioned in Chief Executive Richard Holland’s comments;
“Due to the poor playing performance of the team in the first part of the 2014/15 season there were fewer players than budgeted for in the international squads and hence a material shortfall in income received, which is the main reason for the deﬁcit reported.”
Sound familiar? With just four players currently named in the Wales squad we are looking at a very similar scenario, but we may not find out any extent of financial shortfall as a result of this until this year’s accounts are published in May 2018.
Head Coach Jason Strange has also named his squad for the U20 Six Nations, and there’s better news for the younger players at the club as 12 are named to represent their current at the last stage of age grade rugby before seniors.
Four of the players return to the side as defending champions after last year’s triumphant, with Shane Lewis-Hughes, Kieron Assiratti, Morgan Sieniawski and Rhun Williams are now senior players amongst the squad.
Meanwhile Rhys Carre, Corrie Tarrant, Tom Mably, Callum Bradbury, Aled Ward, Dane Blacker, Ben Jones and Cameron Lewis all make the step up from international U18 rugby in the hope of winning their first U20 caps.
It is further evidence of the development pathway on top form at the Cardiff Blues as all but Corrie Tarrant have played in the British and Irish Cup over the last year, and he has been playing regularly for Pontypridd since September.
For the second year running Cardiff provide the highest number of players to the U20 Six Nations squad, and even have one more representative from our pathway region as Alex Dombrandt is selected from Cardiff Met Uni RFC, having scored nine tries from lock in this season’s BUCS Super Rugby competition, might be worth the club having a look!
The Americas Rugby Championship is also back this year, and there will be Cardiff representation throughout the tournament this year as Blaine Scully and Cam Dolan are selected, but with a few conditions.
Scully will co-captain the side for the opening game against Uruguay on the first weekend of November, before returning to Wales and being available for the duration of the Pro12 fixtures in this period.
Meanwhile Dolan will miss that game against Uruguay, meaning he is free to play in both Anglo-Welsh Cup games, before joining up with his national side to play in the remaining Americas Rugby Championship fixtures.
It’s not looking so bad for Danny Wilson’s senior squad over the next few weeks while the internationals are on, with only Georgia left to name their squad with possibly Anton Peikrishvili involved, meaning there will be plenty of chance to kick on up the Pro12.