Team Report: Centres

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Moving the Team Report into midfield as we recover from looking at the half-back battles, as a position steeped in Cardiff Rugby history comes into focus.

When you trawl the record books, you will find individually talented centres in the form of Mark Ring, Tom Shanklin, Casey Laulala and Jamie Roberts, as well as legendary partnerships Rhys Gabe and Gwyn Nicholls, and Bleddyn Williams and Jack Matthews.

Bidding to join those duos in Cardiff Blues history currently are the incumbent first choice centres in Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo.

Arriving at the Arms Park just over a year ahead of his mate, Samoan international Lee-Lo has 71 appearances under his belt in three seasons, and recently signed a new contract to stay in Wales with his 32nd birthday and the World Cup approaching.

Rey Lee-Lo Toulouse
Rey Lee-Lo has been a permanent fixture in the Cardiff Blues squad over the last three seasons

Halaholo, on the other hand, only completed his first full Cardiff Blues season in 2017/18, but already has 12 tries to his name in 41 appearances, and at 28 should now be at his peak performance as he enters the last year of his current contract.

It was a tough start to last season as a partnership, with the perception being they were playing too much as individuals as the attack failed to fire in the first few rounds of the Pro14. Lateral running, poor distribution and a dis-jointed defensive line led to them only starting together twice between early October and the Christmas derbies.

However, as 2017 became 2018 something began to click and as confidence grew so did their match ratings. Halaholo took the ball off the shoulder of the fly-half and was throwing steps out like confetti, while Lee-Lo rediscovered that uncanny knack to beat the first at every opportunity.

Willis Halaholo
Halaholo the hot stepper has claimed more than a few broken ankles

They will need to start this season with the form they finished the last campaign for Cardiff Blues to hit the ground running, but if they don’t there is a group of young Welsh centres ready to make their mark, led by Garyn Smith.

The 23-year-old had a real breakout season last year despite not being a permanent fixture in the first team, making 23 appearances across all competitions and earning rave reviews particularly for his defensive performances at outside centre.

It was his stint on the wing in Bilbao that was most memorable though, as he grabbed a try and then won the all-important penalty for Gareth Anscombe to make the match-winning kick.

Long-term it could well be the inside centre position that Smith finds himself in, but for now his development continues with an eye on a Wales squad post-Jon Davies.

Garyn Smith Gloucester
Garyn Smith scores as part of the great Bilbao comeback

Now technically there is only one new signing in the backs this summer as Jason Harries arrives on the wing, but when Jack Roberts returns to full fitness after a knee injury in October it will be like a new signing arriving.

It was a nightmare first season for North Wales man as he played just 14 minutes for first team rugby due to persistent injuries, before the knee surgery required after going off against his old club Leicester ended his season prematurely.

At 5ft8 and 14.5st his compact frame gives him a low centre of gravity, but some surprising power makes him an option as both a crash ball carrier and a centre who can run into the wide channels. Still only 27 hopefully he can overcome his time out of the game and rediscover the form that made him a first team member at Welford Road.

Behind them is plenty of young Welsh talent ready to make their mark on the midfield at the Arms Park.

Jack Roberts London Scottish
Jack Roberts has manly been restricted to playing in development competitions and for Cardiff RFC

Harri Millard will be looking to get some decent first team minutes after fleeting Pro14 minutes in recent seasons. The 22-year-old, who can also play on the wing, has pace to burn and has shown some impressive link play with Jarrod Evans during development games in the past which he will hope to replicate on the big stage.

Another is Cameron Lewis as the soon-to-be 21-year-old outside centre will aim to use the new Cardiff Blues U23/A team as a springboard to catch John Mulvihill’s eye. An impressive runner who has featured regularly for Pontypridd in the last two seasons, now is the time for Lewis to start making the leap to professional senior rugby.

Elsewhere two established first team squad members, in Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill, will be hoping they get their chance to move inside from the wings they have spent much of their game time on so far.

Owen Lane Edinburgh
Owen Lane made quite the impression last season

Neither player has hidden their desire to play in the centre long-term, following in the footsteps of Jamie Roberts who got his first taste of league and European action on the wing before moving into the centre.

Summerhill, the elder of the two at 23, got his first taste of playing at centre for Cardiff Blues in the Anglo-Welsh Cup last season and bagged a try against London Irish, while Owen Lane will have to stay patient before moving inside after only breaking into the first team halfway through last season.

Both players undoubtedly have the attacking ability to play in midfield as dangerous runners with pace to burn, but it’ll be learning the nuances of defending at outside centre that will make or break them. If they crack that the sky is the limit.

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