Team Report: Back Row

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Now, usually during the Team Report the lengthier blogs come when looking at the front row and the back three, where strength in depth is necessary as either an attritional area of the field, or somewhere where versatility to cover other positions is useful.

However, you will be hard pressed to find a back row department with more strength in depth than at Cardiff Blues in all of Europe this season, such is the quality and numbers of players we possess.

This all comes despite the news that one of the best opensides of the last five years in world rugby, Sam Warburton, has announced his retirement this summer after failing to recover from the neck injury which he underwent surgery to fix last season.

With Warburton the battle for the number seven jersey at the Arms Park would have been intriguing, but even without the Wales captain it will be a hotly contested area f the field, with three players more than capable of lining up in a starting XV.

At the head of that race at the moment is newly announced Cardiff Blues captain Ellis Jenkins, who returns to club action after a successful stint with Wales at flanker and as tour co-captain.

Ellis Jenkins Munster
Ellis Jenkins will lead the team this season

It feels like Jenkins has been a fixture with Wales’ Capital Region for a lifetime now, but at just 25 years old the scary thing, for opposition teams anyway, is that the flanker’s best days are ahead of him.

Carrying on the Warburton and Martyn Williams tradition of being a Cardiff jackal, Ellis has the added ability of a deft pair of hands and the rugby intelligence to play almost anywhere on the field, even scrum-half!

This season is a huge one for Jenkins, taking over the captaincy at Cardiff Blues, on course to join the 100 club, and knowing that a continuation of his form could well lead to a starting berth at the World Cup next year. The future Lion King’s talent seemingly knows no bounds, but let’s just enjoy watching Simba play for now.

The other Welshman in the openside battle is arguably the breakout star of Welsh rugby in 2017/18, Josh Navidi. Of course we’ve known what the Bridged-man is capable of for some time now, but it wasn’t until the last Autumn Internationals that the wider rugby community seemed to sit up and take notice.

Up there with the most well-rounded rugby players currently playing, Navidi more than often leads the tackle stats, is a competent jackal and has a carrying power that belies his frame of just over 6ft and 16.5st.

Josh Navidi Cheetahs
Josh Navidi was a stand out player in Welsh rugby last season

At 27 the Dreads of Destruction are just reaching their prime, and if Navidi can stay fit and consistent as ever, it will certainly be difficult for Warren Gatland to leave a man at home who can comfortably slot in right across the back row for both club and country.

Finally, the third openside candidate is a man who, in just 12 short months, has already become a cult figure at the Arms Park.

Olly Robinson only arrived on a short-term loan from Bristol in the first few rounds of last season, but immediately won supporters over with his work rate in defence and never-ending adjusting of his distinctive blue scrum cap.

After a 2016/17 season where ringers were appearing, unsuccessfully, left, right and centre, Robinson’s arrival was a breath of fresh air, and his permanent signing in December was universally welcomed. Despite England desperately needing a quality openside, Robinson is here to stay and his season-long availability is a huge asset.

Of course, you could say that there is no competition, just start Olly at openside, Ellis at blindside and Navidi at number eight. That would be all well and good, if I was finished running through the quality players available to John Mulvihill in the back row.

There is of course just the small matter of two massive ball carriers in the shape of Nick Williams and new signing Samu Manoa.

Samu Manoa Toulon
Samu Manoa has made the switch from Toulon

Big Nick has now been at Cardiff Blues two seasons now, and has spent the entirety of his time here piling egg onto the face of those who suggested we were signing a player no longer close to his best.

At 34 he’s no spring chicken, but he was central to all of our success last season with his carrying across the gainline and physical edge in defence, adding something to our game that had been missing in games previously, as well as chipping in with more turnovers in the Pro14 than any other Cardiff Blues player.

His game time will need to managed though, and the acquisition of a certain American international in the form of Samu Manoa will more than help that.

In a similar way to how Dmitri Arhip coming to Cardiff Blues was a stroke of luck, being in the market for a big back-rower/second row around the time that Toulon were happy to let Manoa go could well work out as a superb piece of business on our behalf.

At 6ft6 and close to 20st, Manoa is one of the finest ball carrying forwards in Europe, and has been since arriving at Northampton in 2011. A raft of awards have gone his way, but as well as the physical edge to his game, he can add a dynamism to his running that Nick Williams’ stockier frame can’t quite manage.

The question at the moment is how he will fit into the team. There’s no doubt that him and Big Nick will be somewhat interchangeable at number eight, but the dream is to get them both on the pitch at the same time in the big games, and that’s where we could see Manoa slide into the second row.

However they feature though, it’s great to have the options of two players who are more than capable of breaking the gain line when they carry.

Are we done looking at the back-rowers though? We’ve still got the small matter of Welsh international Josh Turnbull, another in that back row/second row cross over section.

Josh Turnbull Glasgow
Josh Turnbull won the Cardiff Rugby Life player of the year award last season

30-year-old Turnbull has become part of the furniture at the Arms Park, with 94 appearances in four years and is an integral part of the squad.

A blindside naturally, the 10-cap Welsh international has filled in at lock, openside and number eight during the last season, winning the Cardiff Rugby Life player-of-the-year award for his consistent effort in defence and experience at the set piece.

The sixth player mentioned in this blog, and the sixth player who it is very difficult to leave out from a starting XV, let alone a matchday 23, and it’s still not even over.

Macauley Cook, who I mentioned in the look at the second row blog that I see him in the engine room more than on the flank this season, is ready to step up when required, while Shane Lewis-Hughes is looking to make the leap from development rugby to the Pro14 after doing his time with Wales U20s and in the Premiership.

Below them Jim Botham and Alun Lawrence will feature again for the Wales U20s next season, and they will be joined in the new Cardiff Blues U23/A squad by Ioan Rhys Davies and Callun James who graduate the Cardiff Blues U18 team this summer.

With Seb Davies also able to drop back from the second row to cover blindside or number eight if necessary, John Mulvihll can’t complain that he doesn’t have a huge amount of strength in depth in the back row. Strength that a national team coach would love to have, let alone a club coach.

I for one do not envy the Australian having to pick three starters in this area this season.

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