Moving on from having a look at the front row to kick-off this year’s Team Report, we now switch to the engine room of the forward pack and the second rows.
Of course the big story of the summer in Cardiff has been the non-signing of Franco van der Merwe, with the South African international being allowed to look elsewhere for a new club as financial restrictions are put in place by the Blues hierarchy.
At this point there is no confirmation of a move to London Irish, and Cardiff will be liable to honour van der Merwe’s contract if the deal does fall through, but for now we shall work on the basis that he will not be part of the squad for this season.
Despite van der Merwe’s apparent no-show, there is still an addition to the second row ranks as Damian Welch returns to the Arms Park, eight years after departing Cardiff RFC for the Scarlets.
After moving on to Exeter in 2012, Welch comes home as an Aviva Premiership winner and having picked up a wealth of experience playing at the highest level of northern hemisphere club rugby alongside the likes of England international Geoff Parling and Wallaby Dean Mumm.
Now 35 he will bring some much needed leadership and experience to the heart of the Cardiff Blues forward pack, as well as hopefully adding some of the grunt that was lacking at times last season.
Naturally seen wearing the number five jersey, it is certainly hoped he can provide a stern presence behind the tighthead at the scrum, as well as using his 6ft6 frame to provide some stability to our lineout.
Hoping to join Welch in the first choice second row pairing will be George Earle after a frustrating debut season in Cardiff that saw him earn plenty of plaudits before Christmas, but restricted to just six games after the festive period due to a mixture of suspension and a recurring ankle injury.
Largely credited with bringing a degree of physicality to the engine room during the unbeaten start to last season, Earle seemed like a very astute signing after arriving from the Scarlets last summer, but the frailties of his body soon became obvious as he started each of the first eight league games.
A big presence at breakdowns and mauls, the Welsh qualified lock will need to be used wisely, but can certainly be an asset in the heavy hitting encounters and against the newly introduced South African sides, one of which, the Cheetahs, are a former team of his.
The third and final senior lock is James Down, who is preparing to start his 11th season of association with Cardiff Blues either side of a season at London Welsh in the Aviva Premiership.
During the mid-season injury crisis the soon-to-be 30-year-old second row stepped up admirably as a force in the pack, making seven straight starts during the festive period, but found his chances of first team rugby restricted as players returned to fitness and Down picked up a niggly injury of his own.
Another player comfortable with number five on his back, Down is a slightly surprising must-have for teams looking to challenge in the Pro14, in that he’s a player who is unlikely to be involved in international squads, but is good enough to start in the league and perform well whilst guiding through younger players with his experience.
Similarly, Macauley Cook is a perfect example of that type of player, someone who is always 100% reliable, prepared to do the dirty work at the contact area and will always be busting a gut for the team.
Although the Rhondda boy has played most of his rugby at blindside flanker in recent years, it is likely he will see more action at lock this season just as he did in the back end of the last campaign.
Having actually come through the ranks in the second row, Cook already has 126 appearances to his name at the age of 25 and will begin his eighth season at the Arms Park in the next few weeks, and is already becoming one of the senior players despite still being closer to the start of his career than the end.
Despite usually being found wearing the number five jersey when selected in the second row, Cook is not as physically abrasive as his counterparts, instead bringing a mobility to his play as you’d expect from a part-time flanker, something suited to the plastic of the Arms Park.
One of those players that will hope to learn from the experience of his colleagues is Seb Davies, as the newly capped Wales international looks to make his mark on the Cardiff Blues first team.
After missing the entire 2015/16 season with a serious shoulder injury, the Radyr born youngster managed to appear 13 times in all competitions last year, doing enough to earn a spot on the plane down under with Robin McBryde’s Wales and impressing in the red jersey.
Still only 21-years-old, Davies is a gangly 6ft6 lock who is comfortable at blindside as well, giving him a mobility to his game similar to that of Macauley Cook. An accomplished lineout jumper and ball carrier, he certainly appears to have the qualities to be an all-round very good second row.
Coming through the ranks behind Davies is Callum Bradbury, the 19-year-old having been a part of the Wales U20 side last season appearing in both the U20 Six Nations and Junior World Championship.
Already standing around 6ft7, the Pontypridd born academy player made his Anglo-Welsh debut last season and has been allocated to the Sardis Road side for the forthcoming campaign as he looks to complete his first full year in senior rugby with Premiership games alongside British and Irish Cup and further Anglo-Welsh appearances.
Like the front row before it, the effectiveness of the locks will be determined largely by how many injuries can be avoided, and on the selection of the second row combination being suited to each particular game.
Away in Ireland it is likely a Welch/Earle duo is preferred, as opposed to a Cook/Davies pairing for a home game on the plastic against an Italian side.
In an ideal world I’d suggest Danny Wilson would wish to strengthen his second row contingent, but Welsh rugby is far from a dream, and we are where we are. It’s not exactly panic stations, but there’s big hopes on the shoulders of Seb Davies to step up effectively, and Damian Welch to make an impact on his return to the Arms Park. Come on Cardiff!!