Warren Gatland will name his Wales squad for this summer’s tour to the Americas on Tuesday morning, with a number of new faces expected to be called upon ahead of fixtures ahead of South Africa and Argentina.
At the culmination of a long and arduous season, Gatland will likely a leave a number of the players who toured New Zealand as part of the British and Irish Lions last summer at home to rest and recuperate ahead of the run up to the World Cup next year.
This means that there are squad places and caps up for grabs, and as the form team in Wales currently, Cardiff Blues are more than putting forwards a number of names to fill those spots on the plane across the Atlantic.
Of the last four Wales squads, on two occasions we have had just four Cardiff Blues players included and another only six, with the exception being the eight players taken to Tonga and Samoa last summer during that Lions tour.
Aside from the obvious financial and commercial advantages to having players named in the squad, it also is a sense of great pride of successfully being a major part of the development pathway to the Wales squad, so here’s hoping for a number of Cardiff Blues representatives this summer.
We start with those who can be pretty safe in beginning to pack for Washington and Argentina, and one name who has become an almost certainty on Warren Gatland’s team sheet in a relatively short space of time is Josh Navidi.
Despite the fact it’s coming up to five years since the back rower made his debut for Wales, it was just last summer that he came to the fore as a member of the squad, retaining his jersey through the Autumn Internationals and into the Six Nations where he was one of the players of the tournament.
With Taulupe Faletau likely to be left at home this summer, and Ross Moriarty struggling for fitness and form at Gloucester, Navidi could well find himself slotting into the number eight jersey this summer, where his skillset as a carrier, tackler and jackal is well suited, despite being smaller than other international eights.
He will be joined in the forward pack by another player who counts last summer’s tour as his international breakthrough, second rower Seb Davies.
The soon to be 22-year-old was a surprise inclusion for the trip to play Tonga and Samoa, but stood out as a possible star, and he has backed that up by nailing down a spot in the Cardiff Blues starting XV this season, making 17 starts in all competitions.
Further Wales caps have come in brief Autumn and Six Nations appearances, but hopefully Gatland will continue to use Seb as the second row he clearly is, with Alun Wyn Jones likely to be left at home, rather than a makeshift number eight
Finally, a back is the third definite Cardiff Blues player in this summer’s, with Gareth Anscombe set to be in the thick of the battle for the coveted number 10 jersey.
After injury forced him to miss the start of the season, Anscombe returned to make two substitute appearances at fly-half in the Six Nations, as well as starting there against Italy, but in this final part of the domestic season he has found rather more minutes at full-back than anywhere else.
Despite that, the soon to be 27-year-old is still a high quality fly-half, and with Gatland a big fan of his, there is little doubt that Gareth Anscombe’s name will appear on Tuesday’s squad sheet.
Now, although there are only three Cardiff Blues players in the definites section, there are a number who have to be down as probables, albeit at the mercy of the often exasperating squad selections of Warren Gatland.
Starting up front and we are now well approaching the time that Dillon Lewis should be a regular member of Wales squads. Having turned 22 this season, he has appeared 15 times for Cardiff Blues in all competitions, having overcome a series of niggly injuries.
Tighthead props have been hard to come by in Wales since Adam Jones vacated the number three jersey, but with Samson Lee now turning 25 and Leon Brown turning 22 next season, the time is right to make them the three players fighting for the Welsh jersey.
Dillon will likely be joined up front by Kristian Dacey, with first choice Welsh hooker Ken Owens another senior player likely to be left out by Gatland after his Lions exploits.
The smart money would be on Elliott Dee to take over the number two jersey, with Ryan Elias there or thereabouts, but Dacey has performed well since returning from injury in late March, and deserves another chance to impress in a Wales camp.
Completing the forwards probables is a man who many, Cardiff Blues fans especially, would have in their definite selections. Indeed, England would kill for a man with the talents and form of Ellis Jenkins, but with the riches Wales currently possess in the back row, it is almost the case that no man is assured of a place in the ranks.
After recovering from a serious hamstring injury in time for the second half of the season, Jenkins was named in the Wales Six Nations squad, but was unused and sent back to Cardiff Blues, where he has made nine appearances this year, resulting nine wins.
With probably one of the best rugby brains and understanding of flank play I have ever seen, Ellis has drawn plaudits from all quarters as Cardiff Blues have charged to the European Challenge Cup Final, and few are expecting anything other than him adding to his six caps won so far.
Into the backs, and it is difficult to look beyond Tomos Williams as a scrum-half option in Gatland’s squad. With Rhys Webb departing for Toulon without 60 caps, and Gareth Davies having picked up an injury in the Scarlets win over Cheetahs on the weekend, the young man is arguably the in-form fit and available nine in the country.
Aled Davies, Jonathan Evans and even Rhodri Williams could be in the running to compete with the 23-year-old, but in his 28 league and European appearances this season, Tomos has shown a sharp attacking mind and a much improved sense of game management, that could take him to the top of the world game.
Hopefully joining him will be a player who, if I’d said this time last year would be a serious Wales tourist candidate, very few would have believed me.
The rise of Owen Lane has been somewhat meteoric, from a British and Irish Cup player with potential in October, to a regular Pro14 starter by February. Six tries in 11 games for the 20-year-old winger is quite remarkable.
He has power, pace and a rugby brain to go with it, and whether selected as a winger, where he has played all of his rugby this season, or as an outside centre, where his future no doubt lies, he would appear ready to step up to the international arena.
You may have come this far and be wondering about the obvious omission from the definites and probables category of a certain Jarrod Evans, and you’d be right to wonder why one of, if not the in form Welsh player this season, is only in the possibles.
The answer to this is the understanding that Warren Gatland will only be taking two fly-halves across the Atlantic this summer, with Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe the men to get the nods.
Now, I think it would be a great shame for Wales and Jarrod himself if he was not selected, he is a clearly talented player who has the ability to unlock any defence, but there is no doubt that at just 21-years-old his time will come and, selfishly, his exclusion would mean he has a summer of rest before a big Cardiff Blues season.
At the other end of the scale, two experienced members of the squad who have been in excellent form this season have put their hands up for selection, each almost two years after their last Wales caps.
Rhys Gill has won many plaudits this season stepping in at loosehead for the injured Gethin Jenkins. A strong scrummager and defensive workhorse, the prop is now hitting the prime of his career at 31 years old, and with Aviva Premiership and Champions Cup wins with Saracens under his belt, he could be an experienced head in a young squad.
Similarly, Josh Turnbull has been the ‘Mr. Consistent’ at Cardiff Blues this season, filling in at second row and across the back row as he has appeared in every Pro14 fixture and missed just one Challenge Cup game this season.
Finishing with the fourth most tackles in the Pro14, and fifth most lineout wins, Turnbull would bring a physical edge against two extremely physical packs, and be a presence at the set piece, as well as being able to cover a number of positions in Gatland’s ‘slimline’ squad.
Another experienced member of the Cardiff Blues squad who may get a call-up, is Lloyd Williams. As mentioned earlier when discussing Tomos, Scarlets saw scrum-half Gareth Davies limp off against Cheetahs on Saturday. If that injury is serious enough to rule him out of the summer’s action, Lloyd may well be called upon.
It has been a marked return to form for the 28-year-old, who has only just fully recovered his confidence after it was destroyed during his last time in a Team Wales squad back in Autumn 2016. However, playing for the national team is the ultimate goal, and if called upon, Lloyd is in good enough form to do a job.
On the flip side, I find myself once again suggesting an inexperienced member of the Cardiff Blues squad should be considered for a Wales call-up, as Garyn Smith has continued his excellent mid-season form right through to this season run-in.
With Jonathan Davies and Cory Allen still injured, and Tyler Morgan struggling to stay fit for more than two weeks, we once again find ourselves short of outside centres in Wales. Scott Williams can do a valid job there, as can Owen Watkin and George North if called upon, but they are not natural 13s.
Against Argentina, a side with an exciting back line who like to throw the ball around, Smith’s defensive reading of the game will be a huge asset. With a decent carrying and kicking game in his locker as well, he would be an excellent tourist if selected as a bolter.
There are certainly players named above who more than merit a call-up to the Welsh squad for the summer tour on the basis of their excellent form for Cardiff Blues this season, even with my somewhat biased eyes!
The key will be how brave Warren Gatland is feeling, whether he will stray from his favourites to select the best squad available and further expand the pool of players he can select his World Cup squad from, or whether he will stick with the tried and tested game that we have seen for the last 10 years.
I hope for the sake of Team Wales, it is the former.