Team Report: Lock

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Having looked at the front row yesterday, it’s now time to finish the tight five with a report on an area of the pitch that has been particularly troublesome for Cardiff Blues in recent years.

Ever since Bradley Davies departed in 2014 there has been gaps in the second row, with the likes of Filo Paulo, Lou Reed and Chris Dicomidis failing to really hold down a position in the engine room with any real quality of sorts.

When the move of Franco van der Merwe from Ulster to Cardiff Blues fell through last summer it seemed like the wait for a fix to our second row woes would go on, but then out of nowhere came a man from Cardiff.

After a handful of games in 2016/17, Seb Davies burst onto the Cardiff Blues scene last season after a successful tour to the Pacific Islands with Wales in summer 2017. 22 appearances in the last campaign cemented his position as a key player at the Arms Park, as he played 80 minutes in both the Challenge Cup semi-final and final.

Unfortunately his form in the blue jersey has not been allowed to transfer into the red jersey of Wales as Warren Gatland continually picks him out of position. If he continues to impress with his modern style of lock play at Cardiff Blues though, he could be hard to ignore come the World Cup.

Seb Davies Kings
Seb Davies’ carrying and handling adds another dimension to the second row

For the most part, Davies was partnered by George Earle in the second row, with the 31-year-old providing some good old-fashioned grunt to compliment Seb’s more dynamic style.

Despite struggling with an ankle injury that rears it’s head at semi-regular intervals, Earle made 19 appearances last season but his year was ended with a shoulder injury against Edinburgh in the Challenge Cup quarter-final in March.

He will be back for the start of the new season though, and his weight and physicality could be crucial in providing some ballast to the front row ahead of the Heineken Cup campaign.

Adding to the depth at second row this season will be the second new signing we have come across in the ‘Team Report’, as Rory Thornton arrives on a season-long loan from Ospreys.

At 6ft7 and over 18st he is the classic lock build, and will be an asset at the set piece after Damian Welch moved on to Cross Keys. After Seb Davies was dropped from the Challenge Cup quarter-final starting XV in Edinburgh to allow for a lineout caller to be selected, Thornton will bring a valuable skill to the Arms Park.

The former Wales U20 captain has not kicked on as he might have liked in the three years since he graduated to senior rugby, and after spending a lot of last season injured he will no doubt be keen to make his mark in Cardiff as World Cup year approaches.

Rory Thornton Cardiff Blues
Rory Thornton has temporarily switched from Swansea to Cardiff

Competing with the three players mentioned so far will be two players on the fringes of the first team but at different parts of their respective careers.

James Down will turn 31 at the start of the 2018/19 season, and with 128 Cardiff Blues appearances under his belt, as well as 103 Cardiff RFC games, it is fair to say he is somewhat of a stalwart at the Arms Park.

With 17 run outs in a Cardiff Blues jersey last season, mostly between October and March when international games are played, Down is a key squad member providing weight and grunt to the squad when it can be lacking as players are away representing national teams.

His lineout steal away at Toulouse in the dying minutes will go down as one of his finest moments playing for Cardiff Blues, as it effectively secured the win out in France and helped us to top the Challenge Cup pool.

On the other hand, Ben Murphy is just starting out on his Cardiff Blues career, having made the step up from Merthyr RFC in the middle of last season.

The 22-year-old was involved in the regional age grade set up in his teens, but when he was released he went straight to the Ironmen and helped them go from Championship side to dominating the Premiership at domestic level.

Some impressive outings for the Cardiff Blues Premiership Select XV and in the Anglo-Welsh Cup resulted in him being invited to train with the first team, and he will be at The Vale full-time this pre-season. With a 6ft5 and nearly 19st frame, he could well be an asset if he responds to a professional rugby environment.

James Down Fa'ao Filise Pau
James Down has 231 combined Cardiff Rugby appearances

With only five recognised senior locks in the squad there will have to be some cover from elsewhere, and with plenty of depth in the back row that is where John Mulvihill can turn to if need be.

For example, Macauley Cook will know that getting a game in the number six jersey is likely to be an uphill struggle this year, and could do worse than reverting back to his natural position at lock with his 6ft4 and 18st frame.

Josh Turnbull played plenty of rugby in the second row at the back end of last season, and came off the bench in the same position for Wales this summer, while new signing Samu Manoa could also be an asset in the second row during the Heineken Cup campaign and when not covering Nick Williams at number eight.

Of all of the positions in the Cardiff Blues squad this season, this is up there with the weakest in terms of strength in depth, but is arguably the best batch of second rows we’ve had in a number of years.

As long as we avoid an injury crisis amongst the tall men, things have the ability to work out well at the Arms Park.

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