Team Report: Back Row

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Rounding off the forwards section of the Team Report is an area that the Cardiff Blues can generally count as one of their strongest positions, the back row.

With the likes of Robin Sowden-Taylor, Martyn Williams, Xavier Rush, Ma’ama Molitika, Andy Powell and Robin Copeland all having previously pulled on the famous blue jersey as part of the back row ranks, there are always big shoes to fill for the current squad.

Back Row

One man more than capable of living up to the expectations, and comfortably surpassing them, is Sam Warburton. The bar has been raised even higher for future players by the two-time British and Irish Lions captain, as he cements a place amongst the greats to run out on the historic Cardiff Arms Park.

Returning after a successful summer leading the Lions to a series draw in New Zealand, Warburton is unlikely to be seen in Cardiff Blues action until sometime around the end of September, and may struggle to match the 14 appearances he made in blue last season.

Sam Warburton Lions 2
Sam Warburton represented the club admirably while with the Lions

What with heading back off on Team Wales duty for November and then the Six Nations taking up January, February and March, Sam will unfortunately be restricted in how much time he can spend with Cardiff.

However, his desire to do well with his hometown club has not waned, as he’s reiterated again in an interview this pre-season. Warburton wants to win trophies with the Cardiff Blues, and to have a world class player like the flanker is a positive, no matter how few games he is available for.

When Sam came through the ranks he was snapping at the heels of Martyn Williams, and now Warburton has Ellis Jenkins for competition on the flank as the 24-year-old enjoys an ever increasing reputation within the game.

After arguably his best season in a Cardiff jersey in the last campaign, Ellis went on the Wales summer tour as one of a number of talented opensides, and returned as the man receiving the most plaudits.

Able to slot in ably alongside Warburton for the Blues, he is now starting to challenge to do the same in a red jersey. Hopefully for now we can keep Jenkins in blue during the international periods, but the man who is set to be the next captain of the Cardiff Blues has limited time before being snatched away from us.

Ellis Jenkins Treviso
Ellis Jenkins is a firm fan favourite at the Arms Park

 

Completing the openside quota is a player who defines the word ‘dependable’. Josh Navidi is about to start his ninth season at the Arms Park and is already on 139 appearances at just 26 years old.

Famous for his dreadlocked hair, Navidi has transcended beyond just an openside these days, to the point where you’re almost more likely to see him wearing the number eight jersey than any other.

An accomplished defender, lover of the jackal and the key to our exit strategies through his ball carrying, the former Glamorgan Wanderers player certainly did himself no harm with Wales over the summer, but with Taulupe Faletau and Ross Moriarty back ahead of him the rankings, it may well be that Navidi is crucial to our year-round efforts.

Battling it out for the number eight spot is Nick Williams as the New Zealander prepares for his second season in Cardiff, after scoring five tries in 20 appearances in his debut year.

After arriving from Ulster Williams certainly did not let us down in terms of his physical reputation that precedes him wherever he goes, putting in some huge hits and going on some typical abrasive carries.

At 33, turning 34 in December, Big Nick is coming to the end of his career, and as such his body isn’t as injury free as it once was. His game time will certainly need to be managed, but if he can be used as the base on which to select a team around in the right games, we’ll win more than we won’t with Williams on the pitch.

Ospreys Nick Williams
Nick Williams is a big part of the game plan

 

So far we’ve heard in the locks of one new arrival at the club, and one player who hasn’t joined up after all. However, in the back row, we may have what seems like a new signing as Josh Turnbull returns from a back injury that has kept him sidelined since the start of last December.

After winning a myriad of club and supporter awards in 2015/16, Turnbull’s season was cut frustratingly short, but he is now back in full training and preparing to do battle for the blindside spot once again.

Also able to cover in the second row and wear number eight, Turnbull’s defensive qualities and lineout proficiency will be valuable assets to the team, as well as his mobility for a big man, and it’ll be great to see the former Scarlet running out in blue once again.

While Turnbull was stuck in the treatment room, Cardiff Blues looked to Northampton Saints for some cover and Welsh flanker Sion Bennett came in on loan for the start of February, going on to make 11 appearances in all competitions.

Three tries in crucial games as the team tried to get the season back on track certainly adhered himself to the Arms Park faithful, and he was rewarded with a permanent contract to stay on in Cardiff.

Naturally a blindside, but able to cover number eight effectively, Bennett’s main strength is his carrying thanks to a deceptive turn of pace for a big man, which contributed to his tries last season. Another name to add to the list of good quality players who’ll be available all year round, the 23-year-old will be an important squad member.

With good quality senior back rowers available to the Cardiff Blues, they will also be expected to contribute off the pitch, as well as on it, and assist in the development of two very promising young players coming through the ranks.

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Sion Bennett made a good impression last season

 

Shane Lewis-Hughes has just graduated the Wales U20 setup, finishing off his time with the age grade sides by making the most tackles of any player at this summer’s Junior World Championship.

The blindside flanker is a natural in the six jersey, leading the defensive effort by word and action.

Having made his Cardiff Blues Pro14 debut off the bench against Scarlets last October, the youngster is clearly thought highly of by the coaching staff, and will look to add to that solitary appearance as well as impressing in the Anglo-Welsh and British and Irish Cups.

A year behind Lewis-Hughes is James Botham, who has already appeared for the Wales U20 side and will get his first proper taste of senior rugby this season while allocated to Cardiff RFC.

Born in the capital while father Liam was on his way to making 72 appearances for the blue and blacks, Botham joined the academy from school in the north-east of England and is impressively making his way through the ranks.

Named in the transition squad he is a physically big man for his age, but is yet to nail down a regular position as he is used at both openside flanker and number eight. Whichever position he finds home in he appears to have a big future though.

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James Botham is one to keep an eye on

 

After the slight concern over the second row options on offer, it’s a comfort to know there are a number of high quality back row players at the disposal of Danny Wilson next season.

Balance will be key, as goes without saying for all back rows, as at times during last season’s injury crisis we struggled either without big ball carriers, or without players able to compete at the breakdown.

Due to the abrasive nature of the positions in the back row, and the injury prone nature of some of our players, rotation will play a big part this season for the loose forwards, but with the quality on offer there is no reason not to trust each player to do a job for the team. Come on Cardiff!!

 

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