The 2017/18 Guinness Pro14 season signals a new era for Cardiff Blues, with a new focus on developing players from within, rather than signing players to boost the squad.
Long gone will be the old ‘chequebook charlies’ adage that Cardiff carried for so long, as the realities of the financial climate within the Welsh game and Pro14 have finally caught up, and ‘budget cutting’ is now the phrase which precedes Cardiff Blues in our unofficial title.
Fortunately, Cardiff Blues benefit from a regional pathway that includes the well populated area of Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, as well as the rugby-loving South Wales valleys, giving the age grade sides plenty of talented youngsters to develop into professional rugby players.
Recent seasons have seen the pathway produce an excellent crop of players, resulting in Cardiff Blues sending 21 players to the under-20 Junior World Championship as part of the Welsh team over the last two years.
Many of those players are now ready to graduate from the development pathway into the Cardiff first team, leaving the Blues with possibly one of the strongest under-23 sides in the Pro14, if not the Northern hemisphere. Here’s some of those players to keep an eye on this season, and how that U23 team could look.
1. Corey Domachowski
The loosehead prop made his first team bow last season during a Cardiff Blues injury crisis just after Christmas in an away game at Pau in the European Challenge Cup. Since then he has gone on to make his first Pro14 start in a very impressive performance against Munster, making 13 appearances in all between January and May.
Despite being just 20 years old he is already around 19 stone, and mixes a powerful scrummaging game with mobility around the field that belies his size. One of a number of promising looseheads, alongside Brad Thyer and Rhys Carre, the competition will serve them, and Cardiff Blues, well.
2. Ethan Lewis
23-year-old hooker Lewis has been unlucky with injuries so far in his career, but still has plenty of time to establish himself as a first team member, with front rowers generally developing slightly later than players in other positions.
After making 14 appearances in 2015/16, the Pontypridd-born player only appeared 3 times last season, but will be hoping to stay fit and get plenty of game time to develop his contact play and improve consistency with his lineout throwing in readiness to step up after Matthew Rees’ retirement.
3. Dillon Lewis
It seems like the tighthead prop has already been around a number of years, such has been the continuing hype around Lewis throughout his career so far. However, at just 21 he’s only made 18 appearances in three seasons, and as such will be hoping to double that during this campaign.
With a full Wales cap now to his name he is certainly living up to his pedigree, and after a lengthy ankle injury picked up just before Christmas, he is fully fit and ready to take the number three jersey from stalwart Fa’ao Filise.
4. Seb Davies
Another player who won a full Wales cap over the summer, it was somewhat of a surprise to see Davies in the senior international arena having not yet started a Pro14 game for Cardiff Blues.
However, he certainly proved the doubters wrong with impressive outings in the red jersey, and is now in a good position to challenge the first team with Franco van der Merwe not signing for Cardiff after all.
5. Callum Bradbury
A player who is still a year off making his Pro14 breakthrough, Bradbury has plenty of potential going forward after earning favourable reviews with the Wales U20s last season.
Standing at 6ft7 tall he is a key lineout option and mobile enough to work around the field. Much of this campaign will be spent learning his senior rugby trade with Pontypridd, but don’t be surprised to see him in plenty of Anglo-Welsh Cup games and in the odd Pro14 game off the bench.
6. Shane Lewis-Hughes
The player who made the most tackles out of anyone in this summer’s Junior World Championship, blindside flanker Lewis-Hughes will be hoping to build on his single Pro14 appearance from last season as he turns 20 towards the start of this campaign.
A physical player, who can also cover at lock if required, Lewis-Hughes will have plenty of competition from Josh Turnbull and Macauley Cook for the number six jersey for game minutes, but has plenty of potential to work with when called on.
7. James Botham
Appearing in the development pathway for the first time last season, Botham moved to Cardiff from school in the north-east of England and went straight into the Wales U20s side, as well as appearing for the Wales 7s setup.
An athletic back rower, he is a strong looking player that belies his 19-year-old age, and is already appearing for Cardiff RFC as well as Cardiff Blues Premiership Select in the British and Irish Cup. This season will be another development season for Botham, hopefully drawing on the last experience of British and Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton.
8. Sion Bennett
A bit of a hidden gem unearthed in the middle of the injury crisis last season, Bennett originally joined on loan from Northampton having been released from the Scarlets setup as a youngster. Two seasons of not making much impact on the first team at Franklin’s Gardens may have impacted the back rower’s fitness, but he hit the ground running with three tries in eleven games for Cardiff.
With fans and coaches alike impressed with his committed ball carrying and defensive displays, Bennett, who is a blindside flanker by trade, can cover at number eight. This could work to his advantage well with Nick Williams requiring his game time to be managed and Welsh number eights being at a minimum currently.
9. Tomos Williams
Scrum-half Williams had his breakthrough season in 2016/17, making 25 appearances in all competitions and going on the Wales tour to the southern hemisphere over the summer, although did not win his first cap on this occasion.
With only nine of those 25 games being starts though, Tomos will be aiming to overtake Lloyd Williams as the first choice number nine at the Arms Park, and also consolidate the third choice scrum-half spot for Wales behind Rhys Webb and Gareth Davies.
10. Jarrod Evans
Despite being hampered by a broken jaw through the middle of last season, young fly-half Evans was still awarded a new long-term contract due to how highly he is rated by the Cardiff Blues management.
With only two league and European appearances last year after a breakout 2015/16, Evans will be hoping to push Steve Shingler for the backup berth to Wales international Gareth Anscombe, and show off some of the attacking flair that he provided in pre-season.
11. Aled Summerhill
Cardiff Blues certainly retain great strength in depth in the back three, with the likes of Alex Cuthbert, Tom James, Blaine Scully and Matthew Morgan all in the ranks, but one man who could threaten to break into the first XV this season is 22-year-old winger Summerhill.
Five tries in two pre-season games, as well as seven in 17 Pro14 games so far in his career, are proof of his eye for the tryline, and if he can continue that form on a consistent basis, then a berth on the wing is his for the taking.
12. Harri Millard
Centre is similar to the back three in it’s positional strength, particularly in the starters where Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo are pretty set as the midfield pair of choice. However, behind them there is a battle to be backup, with 21-year-old Millard in with a shout.
With a smart step and a handy turn of pace, Millard is also comfortable on the wing, from where he scored two tries against Worcester in last season’s Anglo-Welsh Cup, but has yet to add to his two Pro14 appearances made during 2015/16. He will be looking for game time to prove his worth to Danny Wilson in this coming campaign.
13. Garyn Smith
After coming to prominence way back at the end of the 2014/15 campaign, Pontypridd-born Smith has made steady appearance numbers of 14 in each of the last two campaigns.
Attempts to shift him the 22-year-old to inside centre have slightly hampered his development, with his speed and attacking lines generally sorted more to the outside centre channel. It will be here that he attempts to break the hold Halaholo and Lee-Lo have on the starting jerseys.
14. Owen Lane
Naturally a centre, there are high hopes of Rhiwbina youngster Lane who made his first appearance in a Cardiff jersey at 17 in a pre-season friendly against Bristol. Now almost 20 he is ready to consolidate a place in the first XV.
A powerful runner with a good turn of pace, he is a big threat with ball in hand, and with Wales 7s experience, he has the skills to go with it. Lane will likely gain experience on the wing this season, before moving into midfield, similar to Jamie Roberts’ career progression.
15. Rhun Williams
Many of the players above have been spoken about highly, but none come with quite the reviews that Rhun Williams has received over the last two years. Graduating through the RGC pathway in North Wales originally, he was the breakout star of the 2016 U20 Six Nations, before moving down to Cardiff for last season.
Four tries in 13 games last season consolidated his place amongst the best young talents in world rugby, but a summer call-up to the senior Wales squad was squandered by injury. Now at 20 years of age he is ready to step up to the Cardiff Blues first team full-time.