Analysis: The new boys – Damian Welch

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After looking at incoming centre Jack Roberts earlier in the week, we now move on to analysing the second, and final, summer signing in Damian Welch.

Unlike Roberts though, we are actually welcoming second row Welch back to the Arms Park for his second spell in the capital following some time with Cardiff RFC between 2007 and 2009.

Hailing from Reading originally he studied at Cardiff University, playing for Llantwit Fardre and Pontypridd during his education before signing for the blue and blacks in 2007, going on to make 49 appearances in two seasons, scoring 12 tries along the way.

Bath v Exeter Cheifs - LV= Cup Semi Final
BATH, ENGLAND – MARCH 09: Damian Welch of Exeter Chiefs in action during the LV= Cup Semi Final match between Bath and Exeter Chiefs at Recreation Ground on March 9, 2014 in Bath, England. (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

After failing to make the step up to the Blues in that time Welch moved West to the Scarlets where he played for all three regional Premiership teams of Llanelli, Carmarthen and Llandovery, as well as making 60 appearances for the Scarlets in three seasons at PyS.

From there it was across the border to Exeter in 2012, making 102 appearances across five years at Sandy Park where he won an Anglo-Welsh Cup winner’s medal in 2014, and an Aviva Premiership winner’s medal just last season.

So what sort of player are we receiving back, some eight years after he left the Arms Park following that first spell? Let’s have a look…

Physicality

Standing at 6ft6 and weighing around 18st, Damian Welch will be looked to in terms of adding some of the grunt to the forward pack that was noticeably missing at points last season.

Generally wearing number 5 for Exeter during his time in the south-west, he will slot in nicely behind the tighthead at the scrum, with the two locks becoming specialist positions of their own these days.

When in possession he’s not a huge carrying lock though, leaving that to the likes of Thomas Waldrom and Kai Horstmann, in a similar fashion to how Cardiff use the likes of Nick Williams and Josh Navidi as their primary carriers.

However, what he brings is an ability to secure possession at the breakdown, either through an effective clear out or a strong bridge over the ruck.

Welch ruck 1

Damian Welch ruck 5

Welch has the power clear-out game, where he can shift players out of the way, and he also has the awareness, as seen in the first clip, to move opponents intelligently and create a gap down the blindside which Exeter go on to score from.

More than that though, he uses his big frame wisely to ensure ball retention at the breakdown, something which was an issue for Cardiff Blues last year as the opposition more than often found it too easy to slow the ball down or secure a turnover.

Welch ruck 3

Welch ruck 4

Welch ruck 2

 

In defence he’s not an atypical big hitter either, but again what he brings will benefit the Cardiff Blues in terms of what we struggled with last season.

Especially in the second half of the campaign, there were issues surrounding guard defence at the breakdowns. Teams were finding easy yards around the fringes and, on more than one occasion, simply wandered straight through large gaps around the ruck to make big gains in territory. Munster even managed to score a try from it.

Welch guard 2

Welch guard 3

Welch guard 1

 

Throughout the games I watched of Welch he was either at guard or bodyguard at over 50% of all defensive breakdowns and, although the likes of Clermont and Wasps aren’t sides to pick-and-go from a ruck, when they did keep the game narrow he had the power to repel a ball carrier.

Welch defence 3

Welch defence 1

 

Similarly to the offensive breakdowns, Welch will offer that something different to the big hitting Nick Williams and Fa’ao Filise’s of the world. That’s what makes a new signing a good signing, bringing something new to the team.

Attack

Having said the above about Damian Welch leaving the ball carrying to the specialists as Exeter, he did find a niche of his own with ball in hand, and a niche that could fit in perfectly at Cardiff Blues if we are brave enough to use it.

The Premiership side used a split forwards style of attacking formation, where more often than not the second rows were placed on a flank each. This’ll be important to remember for fans before the old ‘hiding on the wings’ card is played. It’s a style of play Welch will be used to, and one that works well for him, with nine tries in five seasons not a bad return from a lock.

Despite being a physically big man, Welch’s mobility belies his stature. There is a reason he won Wales 7s caps a few years ago, he’s got balance, strength and certainly a turn of pace compared to other men his size.

Welch try 1

Welch try 4

Welch try 5

 

Any winger in the world would be happy with the first try, while the second and third clip prove the advantage of having a big man like Welch on the wing. Very difficult to stop from five metres out.

With the noises that come out of the Cardiff Blues camp always referring to a fast, expansive game, that did come to the fore at times last season. To split the forwards in this fashion offers the advantage of getting mobile forwards into a bit of space on the flanks and in possessions to make metres and score tries.

It also provides assistance to outside backs in terms of rucking and ball retention, with the ball carrying forwards who operate better in tight quarters able to stay in the middle 30m of the pitch. Simple yet effective way of setting up to each players’ strengths and actually reducing workloads.

Lineout

Of course it almost goes without saying that a man standing at 6ft6 will be an asset at the lineout, but that hasn’t always been the case over recent years at the Arms Park where we’ve had a number of tall locks that have failed to rectify a distinctly flimsy set piece.

Welch is a proven lineout jumper and, crucially, he was often employed at the tail by Exeter.

Welch lineout 5

Welch lineout 3

Welch lineout 2

It’s an encouraging detail for two reasons. Firstly, it compliments the emergence of Macauley Cook as an accomplished jumper at the front of the lineout, with a jump speed that got Cardiff out of a few dangerous positions in the second half of last season.

Secondly, we’ve lacked a good jumper at the back of the lineout for a while, and if Welch can fill that gap it could open up an attacking opportunity which we’ve missed out on for too long.

Looking at the third clip, the speed that taking the ball from the rear lineout jumper can create is a real weapon, especially with a backline containing the likes of Gareth Anscombe, Willis Halaholo, Rey Lee-Lo, Alex Cuthbert and Tom James.

Gloucester Alex Cuthbert
Aled Cuthbert could benefit from Damian Welch

There have been plenty of naysayers over the summer that denounce the signing of Damian Welch on the basis that he is 35 when arriving back at the Arms Park.

However, when you consider he did not make his Scarlets debut until the age of 27, Welch has only had a professional career of eight years thus far, leaving his legs fresher than a lock who made their senior breakthrough at the age of 20.

Welch’s age also means he has the experience that was quite evidently lacking in the Cardiff Blues engine room without George Earle last season, and the leadership that was on short supply in the wider squad.

With young lads like Seb Davies and Callum Bradbury emerging in the Cardiff Blues second row, they will need players like Welch and Earle to look up to, in the same way that Bradley Davies was brought through by Paul Tito back in the trophy winning days.

CDF_250817_CF_Blues_v_Exeter_007JPG

In the short term though, Welch’s priority has to be solidifying that pack that faltered on too many occasions last year, at the scrum and set piece in particular, as well as the breakdown. If the Blues can tweak the tactics to suit his game then the new arrival will have an impact.

The ability of the forwards to provide a platform for the backs will be a huge factor in determining how the season goes. Let’s hope Welch can aid that effort effectively. Come on Cardiff!!

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