The semi-final selection decisions facing Danny Wilson

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For the second time in a month Danny Wilson finds himself having to whittle down the Cardiff Blues squad to a starting XV for ‘the biggest game of the season so far’.

Just like in the build-up to the quarter-final away to Edinburgh, this will involve making a number of difficult decisions, with a number of players in good form and a relatively small injury list currently.

Of course, nobody will be complaining about this after plenty of occasions when just scrabbling a XV together was an achievement, but it does create plenty of debate amongst fans and pundits alike.

Danny Wilson Edinburgh
Danny Wilson celebrates winning in Edinburgh

The amount of in-form players means that there are almost no wrong choices to be made, before we can utilise hindsight anyway, but a lot of the selections may well come down to whether Danny is going to set his side up to counter-act Pau’s physical game, or try and press our own wide and fast attacking style on the encounter.

Once again, I’m going to have a look at each position, and offer my own selection up for debate.

Front row

Starting with the heavy men, and whereas last time loosehead was a position nailed on for one man, a slight question mark lingers on this occasion.

Gethin Jenkins was not used across two games in South Africa, and although there is no news of any injury to the club captain, it raises the question about why he wasn’t taken on the mini-tour.

Having asked about, I have not heard of any fitness issue for Melon, so fingers crossed he has just been rested and there is no doubt he will be ready to come back into the starting XV after three weeks off if selected.

If, for whatever reason, Jenkins is not available though, Rhys Gill is a more than competent replacement ready to step up and take his place. Arguably the best scrummaging loosehead in the senior squad, Gill has started both South African games in the absence of Gethin.

Gethin Jenkins Zebre 2
Gethin Jenkins will play if he is fit

There is another fitness question at hooker, where Kristian Dacey has also been forced to sit out the South African tour due to a calf injury picked up against Edinburgh in the quarter-final. There is a suggestion that he may well be back available for this Saturday though.

If that isn’t the case then Kirby Myhill is waiting in the wings after recovering from a slightly rusty lineout showing against Cheetahs, to be unlucky to miss out on the man-of-the-match award against Kings.

Tighthead, on the other hand, is a tricky decision with none of the options available to Danny Wilson particularly laying claim to that first choice title.

Scott Andrews was the man given the nod against Kings, and he has impressed over the last few weeks following a loan spell to Bath earlier in the season, but questions still remain over his scrummaging, especially when packing down alongside Kris Dacey.

It was Dillon Lewis who started against Cheetahs the previous week, and the Welsh international is probably the favourite to start here with the best mix of scrummaging power and work around the field, as question marks remain over the fitness of Anton Peikrishvili to start a game.

What we all want to see though, is one man playing a key role in winning a European semi-final at the Arms Park. Fa’ao Filise hasn’t played since the win over Benetton in the middle of last month, but with the strongest ever rumours that the King of Tonga is set to retire at the end of the season, what a send-off it would be for him to start on Saturday.

My selection – Gethin Jenkins, Kris Dacey, Fa’ao Filise

Would I pick Filise under normal circumstances? Probably not. I’m feeling a sense of romanticism this week though, and like the idea of the man who has anchored our scrum for over 12 years having a final run-out at CAP for the first 40, before handing over to the next generation of Dillon Lewis for the second half.

Filise 2
It may well be one last time at CAP for the King of Tonga

Second row

To be honest, this is close to biggest no brainer on the field. Seb Davies has been the breakthrough player of the year, making 20 appearances in all competitions, being called up to Wales squads and earning plaudits aplenty.

His regular second row partner at Cardiff Blues has been George Earle, however the South African’s shoulder injury picked up in Edinburgh looks like it’s going to keep him out for the rest of the season.

Therefore, it’ll be the man who actually kept Seb out of the team in the quarter-final, Josh Turnbull, who will pack down at lock. With the carrying power of a back rower, the fifth highest tackler in the Pro14 and the best lineout caller at the club, he has become a key member of the squad.

My selection – Seb Davies and Josh Turnbull

Admittedly it’s not the heaviest second row partnership, but they get through a lot more work than the majority of out-and-out locks, thanks to their aptitude for tackling and their impressive engines.

Josh Turnbull Glasgow
Josh Turnbull has been a key part of the team at lock, flanker and number eight

Back row

You thought that picking the second rows was a no brainer? Well the back row is even easier, but no less high quality.

Olly Robinson has been fantastic since arriving from Bristol, jumping up to fourth in the Pro14 tackler list, while we all know about the reliability of a Macauley Cook performance, but three names stand out to start.

Ellis Jenkins has been one of the best opensides in Wales in the second half of the season, combining his jackal abilities with the high quality link play that a modern day number seven needs to have. On top of that, despite being just 24, he has the leadership skills of a man much older than him, and the experience of already approaching 100 appearances.

Ellis Jenkins Munster
Ellis Jenkins has to be close to the Wales starting 23

On the flip side, Nick Williams does have the experience of being 34, but has not been playing like a man closer to the end of his career than the start. The number eight has 22 appearances and signed a new contract this season, and seems to be enjoying his rugby more than ever.

His abrasive carrying is a key element to our attacking game, but his deft hands at a different dimension to his play. Add in the fact that he is second in the Pro14 for turnovers won, and you start to understand what a vital component he is in this team.

Finally, when talking about a Welsh player of the year for 2017/18, there is one man’s name who just keeps popping up, Josh Navidi. Off the back of a mightily impressive Six Nations campaign, the versatile back rower has carried on his fine form in the blue of Cardiff.

The dreads of destruction has been all-action, complimenting the carrying of Big Nick and the jackaling of Ellis perfectly, and will be full of confidence after a man-of-the-match performance against Edinburgh in the quarter-final.

My selection – Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins and Nick Williams

A back row selection packed with quality, that works superbly together and has the right balance of tackling, jackaling and carrying. You’ll struggle to find a better back row in the Northern hemisphere.

Josh Navidi New Zealand
The dreads of destruction have been superb this season

Scrum-half

I can pretty much copy-and-paste this section in from the quarter-final version of this article, “Tomos or Lloyd? Lloyd or Tomos? It’s a question that has dogged us all season and, in fairness to Danny, he’s got it pretty spot on.”

That has continued out to South Africa where Lloyd started against Cheetahs and was a key component in the comeback at the start of the second half, before a lot of the good attacking play in the Kings game came through Tomos.

We know the respective abilities of both players by now, therefore the decision is just about what type of attacking game we want to play. Do we keep it tight early on, before injecting pace in the last 20 minutes, or try to play our way from the get-go and then introduce an element of game management late on?

My selection – Tomos Williams

For me, the way to go is the latter of those options. Pau have a big physical pack who won’t appreciate, or be used to, being moved around the field. Add in the plastic pitch, and the pace of Tomos gets the nod in my opinion.

Bringing on the experience of Lloyd, who is close to returning to the form that saw him competing with Gareth Davies to make the Wales bench just two years ago, is then a big positive, with a European semi-final likely to still be close going into the latter stages.

Tomos Williams Ulster
Tomos Williams has the qualities to unlock Pau

Fly-half/Full-back

Once again I will pair these two positions together because, as we looked at last week, the 10/15 axis has been an important component in our attacking game over recent months.

Involved in some way will have to be Gareth Anscombe, who has continued to show, in both the blue of Cardiff and the red of Wales, the undoubted quality that he possesses, both in his passing game and his running game.

Having started at both 10 and 15 out in South Africa, he is more than competent in either jersey, therefore the decision about where he plays will come down to who else is picked in the axis.

Gareth Anscombe Scarlets
Gareth Anscombe is a player who simply has to start

The stand out player against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein was Matthew Morgan, who was a constant threat to the South African side with his running game, having a hand in creating two tries on the day and carrying for over 100 metres.

However, he found himself on the bench a week later against the Kings, as Jarrod Evans won man-of-the-match at 10, causing pundits to start questioning whether he should be travelling across the Atlantic on Wales’ upcoming summer tour.

My selection – Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe

Matthew Morgan is a very good player, one of the best counter-attackers in the Northern hemisphere, however I maintain that his best position in many cases is actually the bench to allow him to come on fresh legged later in the game against a tiring opposition.

And with Jarrod Evans in the form of his career so far, it makes perfect sense to continue with him and Gareth Anscombe in that 10/15 axis, as they have served us so well in this second half of the season.

Jarrod Evans Zebre
Jarrod Evans playing style has drawn plaudits across the Welsh game

Centres

As with the fly-half and full-back selection, there are three strong candidates for the two positions that make up the centres.

Throughout the season, the stalwart in the midfield has been Rey Lee-Lo. With his big hits and uncanny ability to beat the first man, the Samoan has made 24 appearances in all competitions this year, and has signed a new contract on the back of that.

Rey Lee-Lo Toulouse
Rey Lee-Lo has been first choice centre for most of the season

Over the last few weeks he has mostly been joined in the centre by a revitalised Willis Halaholo on the back of a successful knee surgery.

We all knew about his stepping ability beforehand, but after coming back from the operation he has been better than ever in a Cardiff Blues jersey, beating defenders for fun. This has all led up to a wonderful solo try scored against Cheetahs last week, which showed off all his attacking quality.

However, while Halaholo has been out of action, Garyn Smith has earned plenty of plaudits for his defensive performances from outside centre. His game reading abilities have been key at important times of big games, and after huge performances against both Lyon and Toulouse in the pool stages, he could be an option on Saturday.

My selection – Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo

I am a big fan of Smith’s, and I even talked him up as a potential outsider for the Wales Six Nations squad this season. However, the performances of Halaholo and Lee-Lo in recent weeks have left me with little other option than selecting them.

An understanding of each other’s attacking game, and crucially, a much improved defensive performance in tandem with one another, has got pundits praising them left, right and centre. It will be exciting to see them going up against Conrad Smith.

Willis Halaholo Benetton
Here comes the hot stepper!

Wingers

Over the last few months, the wingers selected by Danny Wilson have changed somewhat.

During that February/March international window, Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill pretty much hand the winger berths nailed down. Lane, who came from pretty much nowhere in first team terms,  has scored six tries in 11 Pro14 games since November and is another being tipped for a Wales call-up this summer.

Summerhill was enjoying a solid run of games, after flitting in and out of the side for a few years, until a muscle injury hit ahead of the Ulster game, allowing Blaine Scully back into the team.

Captain America went on to score three tries in the last three games and looked pretty solid in the side, until Alex Cuthbert returned from injury out in South Africa, scoring his first try in six months against Kings on Saturday. Four doesn’t go into two though.

My selection – Alex Cuthbert and Owen Lane

Listen, Blaine Scully is my favourite player, no questioning that. However, the romanticism is still lingering from the tighthead selection, and in his last game at the Arms Park, I’d love to see Alex Cuthbert have one last stormer in blue.

There’d be another nice passing of the baton as Cuthbert, who has scored so many crucial tries down the years, played on one wing, with the future star try scorer Owen Lane playing on the other.

Gloucester Alex Cuthbert
One last time at CAP for the Big Horse

I don’t know what’s happened to me, but all this winning and positivity has made me go all soft.

In all honesty though, no matter who Danny Wilson picks, I have absolute faith that they will do a job, because that has been the story of the season. An entire squad, with a brilliant culture, putting their all on the line for the jersey week-in, week-out. Come on Cardiff!

The full Cardiff Rugby Life 23

Gareth Anscombe, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Owen Lane, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Gethin Jenkins (c), Kris Dacey, Fa’ao Filise, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams

Kirby Myhill, Rhys Gill, Dillon Lewis, Macauley Cook, Olly Robinson, Lloyd Williams, Garyn Smith, Matthew Morgan

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