The Cardiff Blues Team Report returns to the Cardiff Rugby Life for another season as we get set to begin the 2017/18 campaign, the third under head coach Danny Wilson.
Talk of a ‘three year plan’ when Wilson arrived from Bristol has rather fallen off the rails with the recent financial restrictions placed on the playing budget, which has likely changed the squad that the former Wales U20s coach envisioned he would have by this time in his tenure.
Despite that, he still has a squad at The Vale that contains plenty of talent, specifically within a group of young players who have graded the Wales U20 setup in recent years, and it is those who will be heavily focused on in this season’s Team Report, as well as a number of old heads with the responsibility of leading them.
Kicking off the Team Report are the big boys up front, and at loosehead we find the position with arguably the most depth and highest quality in the entire squad.
Leading the charge for the number one jersey once again is the experience of Gethin Jenkins. Despite preparing to turn 37 in November, he can still be spoken about as one of the finest props in the world, famous for his ability to work as a second openside flanker thanks to a workrate that puts many younger players to shame and an ability to jackal effectively.
Just 13 appearances due to injuries and international commitments last season, but the desire is still there for the man affectionately known as ‘Melon’, and he’ll start as the first choice loosehead and likely to be club captain in what could be his last season of an exemplary career.
Pushing Jenkins hard will be Rhys Gill, who prepares to take over the first choice loosehead slot from Melon at the Arms Park, and will look to challenge Rob Evans to do so next door for Team Wales.
With 24 appearances in a concession disrupted return to Cardiff last season after seven years at Saracens, the Aviva Premiership and Champions Cup winner impressed with a willingness to carry and tackle, as well as holding his end up in the scrum.
Turning 31 in October sees Gill in the category of ‘senior player’ now and, depending on international commitments, will play a big part this season in terms of rotating Gethin Jenkins while retaining some experience in the front row.
This rotating of Gill and Jenkins is vital to ensure they are able to provide support to some very promising young Welsh looseheads that are just about to make their big breaks into the senior professional game.
Brad Thyer is one of those youngsters, and will be looking to make up for a disappointing 2016/17 season which was cut short by a heavy concussion picked up against Glasgow back in January.
Now back in full training, he will want to add to the two Pro14 starts he has already made, alongside the 15 substitute appearances.
As Thyer turns 24 it is the age you’d expect a front row forward to be putting a marker down on the first team, and it’ll be an interesting watch to see if he can do that with two experienced men ahead of him in the pecking order, and two very talented young looseheads breaking through behind him.
In Corey Domachowski we have a player who was a regular name on the teamsheet in the second half of last season at just 20 years of age.
Thrown into first team action due to the mid-season injury crisis, from his full debut in a baptism of fire away to Pau in January he made 13 appearances in all competitions up until May, and certainly did not look out of place.
Standing at 6ft and weighing at 18.5st he has a physical presence that belies his tender years, but retains a mobility around the park, impressing with his general ability to the extent that he was talked about as an outsider to tour with Wales over the summer. His challenge now is to continue improving and impressing so Danny Wilson has to reward him with playing time.
Finalising the loosehead ranks is a very highly rated young man in Rhys Carre. At just 19 he has caught the attention of many whilst starring for the Wales U20 sides at both the Six Nations and World Championships.
Another player who has a physical stature beyond his years, at 6ft3 and over 20st, his scrummaging prowess served Wales very well in their U20 tournaments, and will be a big asset for Cardiff Blues going forward.
After fleeting appearances in the Anglo-Welsh Cup last season, this year will be his first full senior campaign, meaning he won’t be featuring heavily in the Pro14 or Europe, but should be expected to play a major role in the British and Irish Cup and Anglo-Welsh sides. Definitely a player to keep an eye on.
The battle for the number two jersey will be an intense one this season, as a tough choice faces Danny Wilson between four hookers all capable of starting in the Pro14, with two especially pushing for a spot in the first XV. It’s a decision that certainly splits the fanbase.
In one corner you’ve got Kris Dacey, perhaps one of the most popular players amongst fans as his flowing locks and try scoring tendencies send him towards cult figure status.
The Merthyr man is on 118 appearances in blue, not bad for 28 years old, and looks set to start the season as first choice hooker again after last season saw him equal his best ever try record with six in a season from 24 games.
After a summer spent partly with Wales and partly, controversially, with the British and Irish Lions, he returns as a senior figure at the Arms Park. With four Welsh caps to his name he’ll be hoping his ability from open play and improved lineout throwing see him continue to impress at Cardiff and push for a place in Warren Gatland’s set up.
However, in the other corner you’ve got Matthew Rees and a school of thought that says he is still in the best scrummaging hooker in Wales despite preparing to turn 37 in December. Certainly a claim it’s difficult to argue with on the basis of last season’s performances.
With 25 appearances, his most since arriving at the Arms Park in 2013, he pushed Dacey all the way for the hooker spot, and stayed one for another season in professional rugby to do the same again this year.
The answer to the question of whether to start Rees and Dacey does not have a definitive answer as far as I can see. The decision should be made based on opponent and venue. For example, Edinburgh at home on the CAP plastic comes across as a game to suit Dacey, while away to powerful Munster would be more suited to Rees’ skills.
Looking to push both players all the way though will be Kirby Myhill and Ethan Lewis.
Starting his second season in Cardiff, 25 year old Myhill comes off the back of an unlucky debut campaign which saw him injured after 43 minutes on the opening day and then restricted to bit-part appearances, not making a start after the middle of December.
However, there was no doubting his workrate whenever he was on the field, making an impression particularly through his carrying in open play, and will hope to take advantage of Kris Dacey being involved with Team Wales to stake a claim for regular league and European minutes.
Also coming off an unfortunate season injury-wise is Ethan Lewis, who was only fit enough to be selected for two Anglo-Welsh games and a solitary Pro14 appearance from the replacements bench.
After an encouraging 2015/16 campaign it was hoped that Lewis would kick on last season and put a marker down as an exciting young hooker in Wales, but the 23 year old will now look to do that this year as one of the four hookers in the squad.
Compared to the other side of the front row, tighthead is perhaps the position giving Cardiff Blues fans the biggest concern ahead of the new season, with no major recruitment into an area that is so crucial in the modern game.
The scrum was fairly flimsy at critical points last season, and although the finger can also be pointed at the hooker and second row, the tightheads must also take their fair share of the blame as the cornerstone of the scrum.
The great hope is that Dillon Lewis can nail a breakthrough season after recovering from an ankle injury that kept him out for six months from last November.
That was a huge disappointment after the previous campaign where he’d made his Pro14 debut and earned huge plaudits as part of the Wales U20 setup, but he was still able to return to fitness in time to make his senior Wales debut over the summer, and he will look to establish himself in the first team at Cardiff this year.
At 21 years old he still has more than enough time on his side, and it’ll be important not to pile pressure on his young shoulders, but Lewis certainly seems to be the full tighthead package in terms of scrummaging and open play. The future is very bright here.
What better role model can a young man like Dillon Lewis have in terms of on-field and off-field than Fa’ao Filise? The answer is nobody.
The King of Tonga begins a whopping 12th season at the Arms Park, looking to add to his Cardiff Blues record of 241 appearances, and becoming the first player anywhere in world rugby to win a professional contract at the age of 40.
After 24 appearances last year it’s clear the body and mind are in as good condition as ever, and his form made him the first choice tighthead last season, even seeing him score his first try since 2011 against the Ospreys at Judgement Day.
Pushing Filise for the number three jersey last season was the short-term signing of Anton Peikrishvili, who stays on for a full campaign at the Arms Park for 2017/18.
The former Ulster, Brive and Castres player joined in November, getting sent off in his first start against Ospreys in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, but bouncing back well to make nine appearances after the turn of the year.
A back injury restricted his ability to scrimmage effectively at points towards the back end of the campaign, but he was still able to return to the Georgian setup over the summer, and will now hope a pre-season at The Vale can see him settle into the Cardiff Blues pack and provide some of that Eastern European power to the scrum.
Finishing off the ranks of the senior tightheads is a man who will forever be part of the furniture at the Arms Park, or so it seems, as Scott Andrews prepares to begin another season after signing what must have been a five year contract back in 2013.
Now, Andrews takes a lot of stick from those on the terraces, but the truth is that every team needs a Scott Andrews. Someone who is aware their role won’t be to start every week, but will give their all when called upon.
Bubba’s scrum deficiencies are well known, but actually he’s a valuable asset in open play, and is certainly a good option to have on the bench if an open game needs chasing.
If Lewis, Filise and Peikrishvili stay fit then he’s unlikely to match his 23 appearances from last season, 18 of which were off the replacements bench, but his experience and skills can still be passed on to the younger players in the senior squad, and the academy age grade players he is involved with through coaching.
Andrews may well find his playing time further restricted by the emergence of Kieron Assiratti, as the Wales U20s tighthead emerges after a successful Six Nations and World Championship campaign alongside Rhys Carre.
Despite the ultimate baptism of fire away against Gloucester in a European quarter-final, there’s still something seen in the former Coleg y Cymoedd student, and he’ll be drip fed Pro14 minutes this season alongside featuring prominently for the Anglo-Welsh and British and Irish Cup teams.When looking at out front row ranks as a whole there’s certainly plenty of talent there, but the key will be further to the point made about the hookers, pick the right front row for the right games.
Last year’s injury crisis meant team selection became a case of ‘who is fit?’ rather than ‘who should be selected for this game?’. This only served to exaggerate a slight issue about grunt in the forwards, giving the impression that the Cardiff Blues pack was incapable of competing at set pieces and breakdowns.
If the majority of the players above can stay fit this season, and Danny Wilson can get his front row selections close to spot on then I’m confident we’ll see an upturn in fortunes from the big men. Come on Cardiff!!
Would love to see a Jenkins / Rees / Filise unit rolling out in the 2nd half of the season with a combined age of 114!
Records will be tumbling then!