The selection decisions facing Danny Wilson ahead of Bilbao

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For one last time this season, and as head coach of Cardiff Blues, Danny Wilson will have to choose a 23-man squad to represent the club, and it is in yet another biggest game of the season, the Challenge Cup Final.

So far he has got all the big selection decisions right when it has mattered this season, and produced some tactical masterclasses. There is no doubt he will be looking to go out on a high in his final farewell out in Bilbao.

Once again I will look at the decisions facing Danny as he ponders who will take to the field against Gloucester at the San Mames Stadium, as well as picking my own 23.

Danny Wilson Munster
Danny Wilson will make his final Cardiff Blues team selection this week

 

Front row

Starting with the big boys, and arguably the area of the squad where Wilson has the toughest decisions to make before flying out to Bilbao on Thursday.

Loosehead prop is a story of sweating on fitness as Gethin Jenkins tries to recover from a recurrence of his calf problem picked up against Pau in the semi-final, while Rhys Gill suffered a facial injury which required surgery against Ospreys at Judgement Day.

Neither player has been ruled out at the moment, but they would be huge losses in terms of both form and experience if they were to fail in their bids for fitness.

In terms of Gethin, it is a tricky injury to risk him with, as the calf takes a lot of the weight at scrum time, and if it were to give way again early on, it would leave the replacement loosehead with a lengthy shift in a European final.

For Rhys Gill, he needs to make sure the injury to his jaw has healed sufficiently, again to avoid an early substitution, and in case of any long term problems that re-injuring it could cause.

Although losing one or both of Gill and Jenkins would be a big blow to Cardiff Blues, there is enough strength in depth playing wise to cover them, with Brad Thyer waiting in the wings to wear the number one jersey if required.

After a nasty head injury last season, the 25-year-old has returned to make 21 appearances this year, playing in all six Challenge Cup group games and turning in some strong performances, including making 30 tackles against Ospreys at Judgement Day.

Behind him, Corey Domachowski has shown up well when called upon after the last two season by Cardiff Blues, impressing with his physicality for a 21-year-old, and although both players are fairly young, they have mature temperaments that belie their years.

Moving on to hooker and this one is fairly simple. With Matthew Rees still out injured, the number two jersey will fall to Kristian Dacey to make his 131st Cardiff Blues appearance, with Kirby Myhill beating Ethan Lewis to join the replacements.

Tighthead prop is another tough one for Danny though, but on a performance level, rather than a fitness one.

Over the last few weeks the responsibility for the number three jersey has been with Anton Peikrishvili, who started against Pau in the semi-final. However, a lack of fitness and some inconsistent scrummaging may have seen the Georgian make his last start for Cardiff Blues before a rumoured summer return to France.

That leaves two potential starters, at either end of their careers, who could start in the Final.

Dillon Lewis was the man who got the nod for the quarter-final up in Edinburgh, and the 22-year-old could well be coming into the game on the back of a confidence boosting call-up to the Wales squad for the summer tour to the Americas.

However, the smart money would be on the old stager, Fa’ao Filise, who could be set to make 255th and last Cardiff Blues appearance in the Challenge Cup Final. Still a more than sturdy scrummager at almost 41, the King of Tonga proved he still has the mobility to compete at this level with nine tackles in a half at Judgement Day in a strong outing.

That performance is likely to tip the balance in his favour when it comes to starting in Bilbao, and with questions over the fitness of Gill and Gethin, his experience could well be vital.

My selection – Gethin/Gill/Thyer, Dacey, Filise

The looseheads come in that order, depending on fitness, pretty much in order of age.

Ma'afu - Thyer Ulster
Brad Thyer could be forced to step up if injury rules out Gethin Jenkins and Rhys Gill

 

Second and Back Row

I’ve grouped these five positions together for the plain and simple reason that they effectively pick themselves at this point within the campaign.

Since the injury that George Earle picked up in Edinburgh, Seb Davies and Josh Turnbull have formed a solid partnership at lock, working together well at the lineout and maul, as well as showing off their flanker capabilities in open play attack and defence.

The back row, meanwhile, has been the key asset to Cardiff Blues this week, earning a formidable reputation for their ferocious work over the ball at the breakdown.

Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins and Nick Williams have each been in form that, individually, would see them walk into most sides in the world, but that collectively have earned them the right to be named as arguably the best back row in club rugby right now.

Most sides would even be happy to have players of Olly Robinson and Macauley Cook’s quality within their ranks, but such is the form of the five aforementioned players, they may well have to make do with a spot amongst the replacements, making their impact felt later in the game.

My selection – Seb, Turnbull, Navidi, Ellis, Big Nick

Up there with the biggest no-brainers of all-time

Ellis Jenkins Edinburgh
Ellis Jenkins celebrates his try in Edinburgh

 

Scrum-half

The age old question that could rumble on for the next few years at least at the Arms Park. Tomos or Lloyd?

Once again, although it has been pleasing to see Lloyd return to form these last few months, I am going to opt for the attacking instincts of Tomos to start in Bilbao.

It was the quarter-final against Gloucester that threw up some questions over Tomos’ game management capabilities last season, however he has shown a marked improvement in this area of his game over the last 12 months.

He has managed to do that without there being any impact on his go-forward mindset, and therefore it his him I would choose to wear nine, with Lloyd then coming off the bench to see off the final part of the game.

My selection – Tomos

I’m backing Cardiff Blues’ top try scorer in the Challenge Cup this season to announce himself on the world stage with an eye catching performance in Bilbao.

Tomos Williams Ulster
Tomos Williams has three European Challenge Cup tries this season

 

Fly-half/Full-back

The most important aspect of Cardiff Blues’ attacking game plan is the 10/15 axis, and picking the right two men in these jerseys is a key decision for Danny Wilson. It again will come down to two of three players.

As in the quarter-final and semi-final, Gareth Anscombe’s name has to be included, such is the quality of the Welsh international in either position.

He has featured mostly in the 15 jersey over the last few weeks, but offered a reminder of his skills at fly-half against Ospreys at Judgement Day, and there is a school of thought that perhaps the smart option is to go for more experience at 10 in a game of this magnitude.

Matthew Morgan is a more than capable option at full-back, and would no doubt relish the opportunity to show off his running game on the big stage, but he had a tough time defensively at Kingsholm last season, and selecting him and Anscombe in the 10/15 axis would mean dropping the in-form player in the squad.

Jarrod Evans has won all of the plaudits this season, with his flat to the line style of fly-half play, his playmaking capabilities and a wicked step all making up parts of his talent. Add in some incredibly consistent goal kicking and a greater appreciation for game management, and he has everything he needs to make a name for himself.

Big game experience is somewhat lacking, but nothing has phased Evans so far this season, and there is no reason to suggest that will change in Bilbao on Friday. Not picking him in the starting XV is almost unthinkable at this point.

My selection – Jarrod and Anscombe

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Jarrod Evans Edinburgh
Jarrod Evans kicks have been crucial to wins over Edinburgh and Pau

 

Centres

That adage goes for the positions outside the fly-half as well, as Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo are likely to get the nod to make up the Cardiff Blues midfield in the Challenge Cup Final.

Garyn Smith offered a reminder of his talents at Judgement Day with another solid performance at 13, and with Gloucester looking to throw the ball around a bit, his defensive reading of the game could well be an asset.

However, Halaholo and Lee-Lo have been a force to be reckoned with since Willis returned from minor knee surgery, combining their undoubted individual attacking talents with a much improved defensive combination.

My selection – Halaholo and Lee-Lo

You need your match winners on the pitch in big games, and these are match winners, no doubt about it.

Willis Halaholo Ospreys
Willis Halaholo has been on fire since his injury lay-off

 

Wingers

Unfortunately, injury picked up against Pau in the semi-final will rule Alex Cuthbert out of his last appearance as a Cardiff Blues player for now, opening up a starting berth on the wing in Bilbao.

Looking at the squad that has been used this season, there are two obvious candidates in line to replace him; Blaine Scully and Aled Summerhill.

Summerhill returned from a muscle injury at Judgement Day, having enjoyed a successful run in the starting XV during the Six Nations, actually keeping Scully out of the squad for a few games, and is an exciting player with pace to burn.

However, it is the fan favourite American who gets the nod for me for three reason; his attacking form, his defensive abilities, and his leadership.

Three tries in his last four games is Scully’s best scoring run since arriving at the Arms Park, while his solidity under the high ball and in the tackle will be an asset against Gloucester’s attack. It is his leadership skills that will be hugely important though, especially as someone who has featured in big international games with the USA Eagles.

With Owen Lane certain to start on the opposite wing to cap off a remarkable breakthrough season for Cardiff Blues, Captain America’s influence on the squad will be much needed, especially if Gethin Jenkins fails to get fit in time.

My selection – Lane and Scully

Try threats, solid under the high ball and tough in the tackle. They compliment each other well, and hopefully can fire us to the Challenge Cup trophy.

Blaine Scully Munster
Blaine Scully gets the nod in my 23

 

Friday night will be a huge test for this squad, and we will have to be at the top of our game to get past Gloucester, but once again we can look at a well-balanced 23 with plenty of individual talent that has come together as a unit when it has mattered time and time again this season.

There is no reason we cannot become champions of Europe again.

Cardiff Rugby Life selection vs Gloucester: Gareth Anscombe, Blaine Scully, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Owen Lane, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Gethin Jenkins/Rhys Gill/Brad Thyer (fitness depending), Kris Dacey, Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams

Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Rhys Gill/Brad Thyer/Corey Domachowski (fitness depending), Macauley Cook, Olly Robinson, Lloyd Williams, Garyn Smith, Matthew Morgan

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