The second in the ‘one to watch’ series focuses on a back this time, after loosehead Rhys Carre last time, with scrum-half Dane Blacker the man tipped for big things.
Still only 19, although he will be 20 by the time next season comes around, Blacker has been on the scene for a little while, but surprisingly he only has four minute of first team Cardiff Blues action.
He first came to attention in the Singha Premiership Sevens back in 2016, where he scored the winning try to get Cardiff Blues into the national final. After that he toured South Africa with Wales U18, before playing in the British and Irish Cup and Anglo-Welsh Cup, as well as for Pontypridd in the Premiership.
Blacker then played 10 games for Wales U20 in 2017, becoming a regular fixture in both the U20 Six Nations and Junior World Championship, before actually making his Guinness Pro14 debut in Dragons colours during a loan spell at Rodney Parade.
Upon his return to the Arms Park he made his Cardiff Blues Pro14 debut off the bench in Glasgow, but unfortunately has seen most of the second half of the season in the physio room after suffering a back injury. However, he has now returned for a second crack at the Junior World Championship with Wales U20 this summer.
In terms of his playing ability, Blacker is an accomplished scrum-half despite his age. It would be boring to just show clips of his passing, but he is comfortable of both right and left hand, and is comfortable taking charge of organising his forwards around him.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of game time I have seen of Blacker’s is with Wales U20 last season, and the 20s generally play off 10, with Blacker putting on a platform for the fly-half to orchestrate those outside him.
When Blacker is the focal point of the attack though, he shows an aptitude for putting others into space. Coming off the top of the lineout in the first clip he squares up the flanker at the tail, allowing the prop outside him to take a run at the fly-half one-on-one.
Then the second clip is Blacker taking three yards from the base in the first phase, drawing in the third man out before Blacker puts the Cardiff Blues ball carrier outside that man. Then there is quick, go-forward ball for the fly-half to utilise.
Similarly from the base, Blacker has the eye for a runner outside him, either on the short line as in the first clip, where some quick hands sends the runner over the gain line, or in the second clip where he has the passing ability to fire a flat miss-pass to the player on the crash ball line.
The other aspect of scrum-half play, that is increasingly prevalent in the modern game, is kicking, and Blacker certainly has the potential to be a good box kicker.
Whether it’s kicking to compete, kicking for distance or kicking to touch, when Blacker gets it right he is a very effective box kicker.
However, a point of improvement for his game will be adding consistency to his kicking which, as we saw in Wales U20s win over Australia in the first game of this year’s Junior World Championship, does not always fire properly.
With Richie Rees and Lloyd Williams both at Cardiff Blues in coaching and playing positions, respectively, he has the expertise available to him to improve in this area though.
The final area of basic scrum-half play is in the tracking, and Dane Blacker has this down to a tee.
As a clearly attack-minded player, Blacker has a good eye for when a chance to break forward might be on, and that puts him a yard ahead of others in terms of appearing on an inside shoulder.
Particularly in the third clip, the discipline to stay on the inside shoulder throughout the attack is impressive, and pays off with the try, as well as showing off what makes Blacker a bit different from other scrum-halves, his open field running.
Blacker’s turn of pace, as we saw in that pre-season 7s tournament in 2016, is electric, and as in the first and third clip can make a scrappy piece of play a try in an instant.
On the plastic Cardiff Arms Park pitch it will be particularly exciting to see him turn on the afterburners, especially if we can expand on some of the pre-called plays already in use which sees Lloyd or Tomos Williams step out to first receiver as a forward plays from the base of a ruck.
Adding in to Blacker’s skillset is an awareness of what’s going on around him, and a desire to play the game at a high tempo.
This sees him always looking for quick tap penalties, either to go wide as in the first clip, or to go himself like in the third clip, which resulted in a yellow card for England.
The kick in the second clip is the highlight though, a superbly weighted kick for Ben Jones to run on to, and it is exciting to see those two players coming through the ranks together and hopefully forming a successful Cardiff Blues half-back partnership one day.
Dane Blacker is not the finished article by any means, but he has all the tools to go on and become a key member of the Cardiff Blues squad as he prepares to graduate from U20 rugby into the professional game.
The advent of professional U23 rugby is certainly coming at the right time for the youngster, but he will no doubt have his eyes set on challenging Lewis Jones for the third choice scrum-half slot and getting Pro14 and European minutes in the next season or two.
While a lot of the focus is on the forwards we are currently bringing through the system, Blacker is leading some very talented backs, who we will continue to look at as the summer wears on.