With pre-season now just a week away for Cardiff Blues it’s time to start breaking the squad that John Mulvihill has in his first season down, position-by-position.
We start, as is tradition, with the big boys in the front row, in what is set to be a big test for them stepping up into the Heineken Cup and looking to challenge in the Guinness Pro14 play-offs after the success of last season.
It would seem remiss me of not to mention that this is the first ‘Team Report’ on the Cardiff Rugby Life that won’t start with the a front row blog featuring Fa’ao Filise, as the King of Tonga has finally hung up his boots after an outstanding career.
Life goes on without the big man though, so let’s have a look at what a Cardiff Blues front row looks like without Filise.
Starting with the number one jersey is not a bad decision at all, as it is arguably one of the strongest positions in the Cardiff Blues squad for 2018/19.
Leading the way once again will be Gethin Jenkins, as the 37-year-old begins his 13th season at the Arms Park, with an intervening year in Toulon, in what could be his last campaign of a glittering career.
Jenkins is just six appearances short of joining the Cardiff Blues 200 club, but as his troublesome calf keeps flaring up and the general stresses of modern rugby impact on his body, it’s likely Melon’s playing time will be closely monitored this season. As he starts to make the move into coaching with the U23/A team, it will be Rhys Gill preparing to take his place.
The 31-year-old is one of the more experienced members of the squad, and is just five appearances short of his own milestone of 50 games for Cardiff Blues after seven successful years at Saracens.
It was Gill who started the Challenge Cup Final back in May, playing 60 minutes despite breaking his jaw just two weeks previously against the Ospreys, and the loosehead held up his end against a strong Gloucester scrum superbly. He does face a strong challenge to the number one jersey from two young pretenders though.
Brad Thyer had his best season yet in a Cardiff Blues jersey last year, making 22 appearances in all competitions after suffering a serious injury in January 2017. He came back looking a lot stronger after his lay-off, and that translated into his scrimmaging as he nailed down the third choice loosehead spot.
Now 25 he is at the age a prop should be maturing into a regular first teamer, but to do so he will have to battle with Corey Domachowski.
The 6ft and nearly 19st loosehead burst onto the scene during the 2016/17 season, but was restricted to just one start in the Pro14 last season as he spent a frustrating amount of time with Pontypridd in the Premiership. As he turns 22 at the start of the season he will be keen to impress John Mulvihill and get more first team minutes.
With Rhys Carre now graduating the Wales U20s setup there is a definite strength in depth at loosehead this season, with the pleasing aspect being all five players mentioned are Welsh, strong scrummagers and the young players have the ability to improve their skill levels under Mulvihill. The future is bright in the number one jersey at the Arms Park.
This is the area which many expected Cardiff Blues to strengthen over the summer but we never got round to doing so in a senior player sense.
Matthew Rees still holds the elder statesman role after signing a one year contract in what is expected, like Gethin Jenkins, to be his last season of a glittering career. Now 37 he is just five appearances short of the 100 club, although a knee injury will keep him out of the first few games of the season.
Smiler will again do battle with Kris Dacey for the starting hooker position, as Mulvihill takes over the dilemma of selecting Rees for his scrummaging, or Dacey for his work around the park.
29-year-old Dacey suffered from a back injury throughout last season, restricting him to just 13 games in all competitions. He did manage to add two tries to his Cardiff Blues tally though, and will be hoping his skill level catches the eye of Mulvihill and the Wales coaches in a World Cup year.
Behind them Kirby Myhill will be looking to build on the run of games he had in the second half of last season after what was a tough first 12-18 months as a Cardiff Blues player.
The former Scarlet struggled with injuries after arriving at the Arms Park, but showed off some impressive mobility and a decent scrummaging technique when afforded first team opportunities and will be ready to add to his Pro14 minutes with Matthew Rees injured at the start of the season.
He will face competition from a player keen to make his mark on the Cardiff Blues first team though. It was back in September 2015 that Ethan Lewis made his Pro14 debut, but it’ll be almost three years at the start of this season since he made a start in the competition.
Between injuries and being low in the pecking order Lewis has found first team minutes hard to come by, but having recently turned 24 now is the time he needs to be pushing himself into contention. His build would make him appear to be an asset, if the technique follows suit.
Pressure will be on Lewis from the return of Liam Belcher, as the former Cardiff Blues academy hooker re-signs after a year at Dragons.
15 appearances and five tries during his time in Newport saw Belcher earn a new contract at the Arms Park having been released in summer 2017. Concerns about his size at the time have been eased by his performances for Dragons and he will get the opportunity, alongside Wales U20 hooker Iestyn Harris, to prove himself in the new development team.
A big season for some of the young hookers behind Matthew Rees and Kris Dacey awaits, with Mulvihill ready to bring new faces on board next summer.
With Filise moving on to Dragon Signs pastures new, Cardiff Blues have had a stroke of luck in the transfer market as powerhouse Moldovan international Dmitri Arhip became available at short notice.
Arhip, who made 91 appearances in five seasons for Ospreys and became a fan favourite at Liberty Stadium, saw a proposed move to Top14 runners-up Montpellier fall through, and Cardiff Blues moved quickly to pick up the 29-year-old as a solution to their tighthead issues.
The hope is that Arhip will anchor the scrum against some of the big European packs as we return to the Heineken Cup, as well as passing on his knowledge to some of the young Welsh talent in the ranks at the Arms Park.
Leading them is Dillon Lewis, who returns to the Cardiff Blues set-up this summer after an incredibly successful summer tour to the Americas with Wales. Starting against South Africa and in the first test against Argentina, he earned rave reviews for his performances against two powerful packs and his work around the park.
Big things are now expected of the Lewis in a similar way to when Seb Davies came back on the tour of the Pacific Islands last summer, and with top quality Welsh tightheads somewhat thin on the ground, there is more than a chance of Dillon earning a World Cup squad spot with some good performances this season.
Coming through the ranks behind him is Kieron Assiratti, who has recently turned 21, and will be looking to use the U23/A team as a springboard to get more first team minutes after making 11 appearances in the Pro14 and Heineken Cup last season.
Adding some depth to the tighthead alongside Arhip and the young Welshman are Scott Andrews and Anton Peikrishvili.
Andrews is due to start his 11th season at the Arms Park having made 150 appearances so far, but was restricted to just eight outings last season after spending the start of the campaign on loan at Bath.
That loan spell earned him the nod to start for Wales against South Africa in the Autumn Internationals, and after a run of games in the second half of the season for Cardiff Blues, he took the field for the second 40 minutes in Bilbao as we won the Challenge Cup.
Not included in the squad that day was Anton Peikrishvili. The Georgian international has been in and out of the team intermittently during the season , with injuries and form issues preventing him from nailing down a starting spot in the team.
He was rumoured to be leaving the club with the arrival of Samu Manoa as a non-Welsh qualified player, and although nothing has materialised as of yet, it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see him move on at some point during the season.
Although he can be an asset on his day, with Arhip and Lewis the clear first choices, Assiratti and Andrews providing resilience, and Will Davies-King and Ben Warren coming through the system behind them, there is enough tighthead talent at the Arms Park.