Cardiff Blues pre-season came to it’s conclusion last Friday as a 21-20 win over Exeter Chiefs followed a 23-34 victory away at London Scottish.
Head coach Danny Wilson was able to give 40 players game time across the two pre-season encounters, although was quick to point out that “it means nothing if we lose (to Edinburgh) next weekend”.
So what will he have learned from the two games? And how are we looking heading into the new season? Following on from the pre-season preview, I’ve had a look…
Getting all 40 players, 80% of the squad, some game time is certainly a positive as the whole senior squad will need to be utilised over the course of a long season.
However, it will be interesting to see how each player having relatively little game time will impact upon the opening few weeks of the season.
Looking at our neighbours, Scarlets and Ospreys have each had three pre-season fixtures, while the Dragons have played four. In comparison our two fixtures have offered no player more than 65 minutes of action in one go.
It has also coughed up a few unfortunate injuries, with Matthew Morgan and Steve Shingler being substituted during the Exeter game as precautions, while the big blow is Ellis Jenkins facing a few weeks on the sideline with a damaged hamstring.
Apart from that all players involved have come through unscathed, and it was particularly pleasing to see the likes of Brad Thyer, Josh Turnbull, Lewis Jones, Tom James and Dan Fish get game time on return from long-term injuries.
Danny Wilson was quite right when he said our squad wasn’t big enough to play more than two pre-season games, especially due to the amount of younger, and a few older, players who need to have their game time managed.
After a reduced amount of training in general though, it’s a risk taken in terms of making sure the players are ready to hit the ground running for the visit of Edinburgh on Friday.
Testing the youth
The young players will form a major part of the playing squad this year, and the success of the season will depend a lot on how they stand up to graduating from the development pathway to the first team quicker than usual.
If pre-season is anything to go by, however, then it’s looking very promising. Brad Thyer and Dillon Lewis appear to have not let their injuries stunt their progress, while Corey Domachowski and Kieron Assiratti were triumphant over an Exeter front row featuring two out of three players that featured in last season’s Premiership final.
Seb Davies continued to impress at lock, while Jarrod Evans was involved in plenty of good attacking play across both games. Rhys Carre, Jim Botham, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Harri Millard and Owen Lane were all notable during their game time too.
There was one real winner in terms of a young player attempting to break into the first XV though, and it was Aled Summerhill. Five tries in two games means that something has gone drastically wrong if he doesn’t start against Edinburgh.
As ever, pre-season is the time for trying out a few new team selections and tactics, as well as getting fitness up to scratch.
Danny Wilson wasn’t particularly adventurous in terms of his lineups, preferring to split the squad into a younger team, to face London Scottish, and a team that is more recognisable in the Exeter game.
Despite that there has been some points of interest. The balance of having Seb Davies alongside the heavier James Down and Damian Welch in the second row generally worked well, although maul defence will need to be worked on.
The aforementioned front row of Domachowski, Ethan Lewis and Assiratti standing up well bodes well, in that they are starting to move away from requiring an experienced prop or hooker to be named with them.
In the backs it was encouraging to see Garyn Smith grab a chance to partner Willis Halaholo while Rey Lee-Lo is unavailable, while Aled Summerhill offers nice balance to Alex Cuthbert on opposite wings.
It was also interesting to see how well Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans worked together in the second half against Exeter. Something certainly to be said for these players being brought through the development pathway together, and teaming up with long-term teammate Summerhill outside them.
Disappointingly we didn’t get to see what Willis Halaholo and Jack Roberts could do together in midfield, or how a powerful second row combination of George Earle and Damian Welch could function, but overall it was a positive pre-season.
The nature of the win against Exeter last week was particularly pleasing, and although it seemed odd to celebrate a friendly win in that fashion, there will have definitely been a psychological boost amongst both players and fans after clinging on at the end.
If the young players can continue to stand up and be counted in the way they have over the last two games then there is a real cause for optimism ahead of this year.
The journey will be long and winding, but don’t write Cardiff Blues off in the 2017/18 season just yet. A dark horse may await to be ridden.