Exactly 92 days after the 2016/17 season ended against Stade Francais in Paris, rugby has returned for Cardiff Blues fans as pre-season gets underway with a trip to London Scottish, before Exeter are welcomed to the Arms Park next Friday.
It’s been a long summer of cheering on the Lions and watching the effects of financial restrictions tighten the belts of everyone at the Blues, with Franco van der Merwe the first victim of this has he was released before even arriving in the capital.
That can all be put behind us now though as attention turns to on-field matters and the team getting suitably prepared for the advent of the Guinness Pro14, and welcoming the new South African teams as well as getting our heads around this conference system.
With two tests against English opposition to do just that, I’ve had a look at what Danny Wilson will want to take from pre-season, and what we as fans should be looking out for to let us know how on track we are to compete in 2017/18.
Now it almost goes without saying that pre-season is about fitness, I’m sure most of us have been there running until we’re ill and collapsing with exhaustion.
However, there’s an aside to Cardiff Blues’ fitness this pre-season due to a number of players returning from lengthy lay-offs that contributed to the great injury crisis of December of last season.
Keeping an eye on the likes of Lewis Jones, Dan Fish and Josh Turnbull, all of whom are yet to play any rugby in 2017, will give a good indication as to how much depth we can expect from the squad this season. After being out for between 8 and 10 months, each player will almost feel like a new signing when they return to the playing field.
Other players who struggled with injuries or illness last season include George Earle, Tom James and Dillon Lewis, while Blaine Scully, Alex Cuthbert and Rhun Williams all finished 2016/17 injured and it’ll be worth tracking how well they have recovered, although Gethin Jenkins is expected to miss the start of the new campaign.
If Cardiff can get the majority of the players named above back into action for the start of the season then the squad will have a healthy depth to it considering the financial situation. Keeping them fit will then be the challenge and the key to any hopes of Champions Cup qualification.
Testing the youth
If I said Cardiff Blues were taking a squad of 50 into their Pro14 campaign then there would certainly appear to be plenty of depth, and it’s true, there are 50 players training full-time at The Vale this season when all are fit.
However, around 40% of those players are 23 or under, meaning a fair chunk of the squad is largely untested at the professional level in terms of both their playing ability, and how their bodies can stand a whole season of the increasing physicality we see in northern hemisphere club rugby.
Giving them time to impress and learn is pre-season is a must, especially the players towards the top end of that age category who can expect more game time as the season wears on.
Brad Thyer, Ethan Lewis, Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Garyn Smith and Aled Summerhill are names that spring to mind.
Certainly plenty of talent in that group, now it’s time for them to be given a platform to showcase that, and then it’s up to the players to take their chance. If we are to compete this season then we can’t afford to be carrying anyone, everyone has to pull their weight.
Managing the experienced
Of course we all know what ‘experience’ is a euphemism for in sports terms, but we have to accept in Cardiff we have a number of players in the twilights of their careers.
This isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, in fact it provides a perfect blend of experience in this generally very youthful squad, but it does mean that certain players will need to have their game time managed to get the best out of them, starting with pre-season.
With Gethin Jenkins already out, the focus will be on the likes of Fa’ao Filise, Matthew Rees, Damian Welch, George Earle and Nick Williams, with each player needing to get up to match sharpness.
We need to avoid the temptation to leave them leading the team for 160 minutes over the next two weeks though, with tough games against Leinster and Glasgow following the season opener against Edinburgh.
Squad rotation will play a huge part in the 2017/18 campaign, with Danny Wilson have to stay on the right side of the extremely thin line between maintaining momentum and ensuring players aren’t burned out.
Selecting the right players in the right games, and perhaps taking a risk on some of the younger players in others will have to be accepted, to ensure we try and avoid a repeat of last year’s injuries, and keep crucial players fresh for the biggest games.
With pre-season it’s always about the process, rather than the outcome. Obviously wins are welcomed, but at the end of the day they’re warm-up games, not competitive matches.
As such it’s a good chance to run a few moves or try a different tactic that we may not see during the season, just to see how they work out.
It’s also an opportunity to test out player combinations in certain areas of the pitch. Get new signings used to playing together and try to gauge which players provide the best balance in certain areas of the pitch.
Front row will be one such area that comes under scrutiny, with our options in each of the three positions offering various different abilities and pitfalls.
For example, Kristian Dacey is more of a mobile hooker as opposed to the scrummaging power that Matthew Rees brings, meaning pre-season is an opportunity to find the prop pairing to stabilise the scrum with Dacey there, while a different pair with more open play capabilities would be better suited to Rees.
In the second row there’s a chance to see if the power combination of Damian Welch and George Earle is effective, or whether it’s better to split them, pairing one with Macauley Cook and the other with Seb Davies.
At half-back there’s an opportunity for partnerships to be formed, especially between Lloyd and Tomos Williams and the young fly-halves like Jarrod Evans and Ben Jones.
While through the three-quarter line there are a plethora of combinations to try, but worth keeping an eye on is how Willis Halaholo and new signing Jack Roberts get on in the centre with Rey Lee-Lo not yet available.
In the end it’s just great to have rugby back, it’s been a long time waiting to see the Cardiff Blues back in action!
There’s plenty to look forward to this season with the new players coming through, it’s an exciting time indeed.
So let’s get the positivity and pack out CAP next Friday to support the boys in pre-season. Come on Cardiff!!