Cardiff Blues took their list of signings to three ahead of the 2017/18 season last week with the announcements of Exeter’s Damian Welch and Jack Roberts of Leicester joining the previously revealed Franco Van Der Merwe, who will link up from Ulster in the summer.
The general feeling amongst Cardiff fans was one of positivity over the prospect of the three new players, a welcome emotion in a week following the disappointing home defeat to Connacht. Certainly in terms of Jack Roberts there’s an excitement at the prospect of a young Welsh centre, but more on him later.
Outside of the Arms Park bubble though there has been cynicism from certain quarters in terms of the second rows arriving, particularly in terms of their ages and ability to play for Wales. Van Der Merwe is non-Welsh qualified player thanks to a South African cap, and Damian Welch unlikely to offer competition to Alun Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris and Jake Ball in terms of the national side.
However, for me they are two very shrewd acquisitions. Cardiff have undoubtedly struggled in the engine room since the end of the Dai Young era, with the likes of Paul Tito, Deiniol Jones and Bradley Davies never being effectively replaced. Filo Paulo, Chris Dicomidis, Lou Reed and Jarrad Hoeata have all tried with varying success, but we still lack multiple options of real second row enforcers.
George Earle has certainly been a step in the right direction this season after arriving from Scarlets, while the return of James Down has also been successful, but the two new players will certainly add to the department. The statistics show both standing at 6ft6, with Welch tipping the scales at just over 17.5st, and Van Der Merwe really increasing the pack weight at 18st.
So they both have the physique and pedigree to add to the side, but what of their age? For Van Der Merwe will be 33 and Welch 34 by the time they arrive at The Vale for pre-season, however the South African has been almost ever-present at Ulster, making over 70 appearances in three years, while Exeter have already benefitted from the Welshman’s 12 games this season.
The main advantage from the pair’s advanced years though will be the experience and leadership they can bring to such a vital area of the pitch. At times the pack have looked rudderless in their application at set pieces and the breakdown, and the big hope for both players will be that they can get a hold of their forward colleagues at crucial moments of the game.
In terms of the criticism levelled at the club over the signings, it has mainly come in the form of arguing that signing two players of advancing years is taking up space that could be filled by young Welsh talent. However, there is a requirement to look at the bigger picture of both signings.
Firstly, the young players mentioned are just not quite ready yet. Seb Davies is making big impressions, but is still very fresh out of the U20 setup and needs to bulk up if he wants to make the grade. Shane Lewis-Hughes is still a senior member of the U20s, and his future may lie at blindside flanker, while Calum Bradbury has only just joined the senior academy side.
And secondly, it’s important to look at what the two new signings can do for these players. The experience they can pass on and example they can set could well be valuable to these players in the senior academy or fresh into senior rugby. Not just the locks either, there’s assistance they can offer to all of the exciting young forwards that are currently coming through the system.
Taking the precedent set by Paul Tito, who arrived aged 29 having made a combined 200 appearances in New Zealand provincial and Super Rugby, as well as possessing NZ Maori caps, we watched a young Bradley Davies, just 20 when Tito signed, blossom alongside him and go on to make his Wales debut two years later.
Danny Wilson is certainly not a coach to ignore the younger player, with his background of Cardiff RFC and Wales U20s being steeped in developing talent, and its up to the youngsters to learn off these new signings and prove they are good enough, because they will get chances to stake claims for a first team place.
Hopefully Jack Roberts can be one of those to benefit from game minutes, and go on to challenge for international honours. The centre, who can operate at both 12 and 13 but seems more comfortable on the outside, has made 17 appearances for Leicester this season and arrives with rave reviews over his potential.
Born in Bangor he joined the Scarlets academy system while studying at Llandovery College, before playing for the Drovers’ Welsh Premiership side, combining that with studies at Cardiff University. From there he moved to English Championship side Rotherham, scoring 11 tries in 2013/14 to earn his Leicester move.
Despite standing at just 5ft8, he is all raw power, weighing 14.5st and combining explosive pace with a low centre of gravity. Combining that with some ferocious defending attributes he could well be a real asset to the Cardiff midfield, and linking up with Samoan international Rey Lee-Lo, and Super Rugby winner Willis Halaholo, can only help him.
All in all some impressive looking business so far from Cardiff Blues General Manager Billy Millard, on paper at least. Certainly signings for Cardiff fans to be excited about, now it’s up to the existing group of players to rekindle any semblance of form that can be used as a basis to kick on in the third of Danny Wilson’s three year plan.