Team Report: Half Backs

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With the forwards done and dusted it’s time to switch into the backs and begin with the playmakers in the team.

Last season both scrum-half and fly-half were two of the worst hit areas for injuries, causing Cardiff Blues to look for some short-term cover in the shape of Rhodri Davies, Pele Cowley and Nicky Robinson.

With those players now moved on to other clubs or coaching roles it’s back as you were for both positions though, so let’s have a look who’ll be pulling the strings for the boys in blue this season.

Scrum Half

Perhaps the position that created the biggest selection debate amongst fans, and I’m sure amongst the coaches too, was who would wear the number nine jersey last season, especially towards the end of the campaign.

This is also now a decision that stretches beyond the Cardiff Blues and into the Team Wales setup too, with a third scrum-half berth up for place behind Rhys Webb and Gareth Davies.

Lloyd Williams has got the nod for both teams in recent times, as he missed just one game across the Pro12 and Europe last season, and is acknowledged as one of the senior figures in the team having captained the side on numerous occasions over the last few years.

As he prepares to enter his ninth season at the Arms Park, Lloyd is just seven appearances off the 150 mark and will be hoping to continue the rediscovery of his form that he finished last year with.

Lloyd Williams 4/3/2017
Lloyd can box kick off both feet

He was rightly criticised during the middle part of the season for his delivery speed from the breakdown as well as decisions on when to box kick, and the subsequent execustion of it, all issues which can be traced back to spending time with Wales in November.

However, on his day Lloyd is a high quality scrum half and he showed glimpses he had recovered from Team Wales-itis towards the back end of the last campaign, a very encouraging sign he’s ready to do battle for the starting berth.

Snapping at his heels is namesake Tomos Williams, who is rated as one of the most exciting young players in Wales at the moment.

Last season was his breakthrough year and he rightfully earned plenty of plaudits for his speed, creativity and attacking intent. Five tries from 25 games, but only nine starts, even saw him taken on the Wales summer tour, but unfortunately he did not win his first cap.

There is still plenty of time left for the 22-year-old though, who is set to have a major season in the blue of Cardiff. The competition between Lloyd and Tomos is set to be a highlight of the year, I can’t wait to see it play out.

Tomos Williams Leinster 1
Tomos Williams is a future Wales cap

 

Playing back up to the two Williams’ is another player like Josh Turnbull who can be seen almost as a new signing after missing a significant amount of last season. Lewis Jones has returned to training this pre-season following knee surgery last October.

The Beddau boy is set to feature in his eighth season for the Cardiff Blues, despite being released from the academy at one point before being re-signed two years later after impressing for Pontypridd and Wales U20.

With 87 appearances under his belt Jones will now be eyeing up 100 Club membership, and is a more than competent third choice scrum half to have ready to step up during the international periods, as well as playing a leadership role in the Anglo-Welsh Cup.

Vying with Jones for the backup scrum-half role and a starting berth in the development competitions is Wales U20s Dane Blacker. 

Despite only just turning 19, Blacker has played a prominent role with both the national age grade side and Pontypridd over the last season, as well as making his Anglo-Welsh Cup debut in Cardiff Blues colours.

An accomplished looking scrum-half, the Pontypridd-born player possesses a secret weapon in a devastating turn of pace that helped him light up last summer’s Singha 7s, and Blacker is certainly one to keep an eye on.

dane-blacker-exeter
Dane Blacker has pace to burn

 

Fly Half

For a third season in a row, Cardiff Blues starting first five-eighth will be Gareth Anscombe after the Welsh international renewed his National Dual Contract at the back end of last season.

Coming off a summer adding to his collection of Wales caps, Anscombe returns for his fourth year in the capital ready to break the 50 appearances barrier and hopeful of spending a full season injury free.

The player there’s certainly been some criticism from outside of the Cardiff Blues over perceived favouritism of Anscombe over the likes of Rhys Patchell and Sam Davies due to his shared New Zealand roots with Warren Gatland.

Those of us at the Arms Park are more than appreciative of his talents though, especially when he’s got front foot ball, there is little better sight than Gareth Anscombe pulling the strings in midfield. You don’t win the Junior World Championship and Super Rugby without something special about you.

Attempting to knock Anscombe off top spot in the fly-half rankings is Steven Shingler, in his second season at the Arms Park after making an impressive 29 appearances last year.

A fair portion of those were actually spent at inside centre, offering a second footballing option in midfield, and that is an avenue that should definitely be explored again in certain games, but Shingler looked more than comfortable in his natural position wearing the number 10 jersey when called upon.

steve-shingler-pau
Shingler’s boot has been a big asset

 

Finishing as the overall top scorer at the club with 209 point across all competitions he was reliable off the tee and is a good passer of the ball, as well as able to carry effectively himself. Crucially, he’s available all year round providing good quality cover during international periods.

Pushing Shingler hard this season though will be Jarrod Evans, as the young Pontypridd-born fly-half looks to really kick on after injury disrupted his attempts to build on the breakout 2015/16 campaign.

A broken jaw suffered in the Anglo-Welsh Cup game against Exeter ruined any chance of getting some Pro12 minutes while Gareth Anscombe was injured, but Evans laid down a reminder of his talents with some superb attacking play against Worcester in the final pool game of that competition.

Still only 21, Evans has more than enough time on his side, but will still be itching to get onto the pitch and prove himself in the Pro14 and Europe.

As well as looking at what’s ahead of him, Evans will also have an eye over his shoulder as young Ben Jones continues to make a name for himself in the Premiership and age-grade international setup.

Already playing a year up from his age group to represent the Wales U20 side, he featured heavily in the Six Nations and Junior World Championship, played a few games for Pontypridd and has appeared in the Anglo-Welsh and British and Irish Cups, all before turning 19.

A sprinter in school, he has pace to burn a cultured left boot, giving him an attacking outlook on outside half play. As he gets more exposure his game management skills will only get better, and a gem of a number 10 could be uncovered in Treharris.

Ben Jones Exeter
Ben Jones played beyond his years in Exeter

 

There’s certainly quality amongst our starting options at half-back for this coming season, and plenty of excitement about the 9s and 10s of the future as not only Cardiff, but Wales look set to benefit from a rich crop of young creative talents from around the region.

The fitness of Gareth Anscombe will play a big part in deciding whether the short term is a success or failure, and if we can keep him playing alongside in-form Lloyd or Tomos Williams then there’s always a good chance we can score tries. Come on Cardiff!!

 

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