Team Report: Half Back

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With the look at the forwards now complete, it’s time to move on to the Cardiff Blues backs, and see how the playmakers, try scorers, and perhaps most importantly, defenders, will fit into John Mulvihill’s plans this season.

We start with the men who link the forwards to the wide channels, and get the backs moving as a cohesive unit both with and without the ball, the half backs.

Scrum Half

The battle for the number nine jersey is shaping up to be one of the most intense at the Arms Park this season, as Lloyd Williams and Tomos Williams fight to be the starting Cardiff Blues scrum-half, and for a spot in Warren Gatland’s Wales squad ahead of the World Cup.

Their playing records last season were almost identical as they both started 15 games, with only Tomos’ three additional substitute appearances nudging him ahead, as Danny Wilson rotated them based on fitness or the opposition as he saw fit.

Looking at the business end of the season though it was Tomos who started against Edinburgh, Pau and Gloucester, after Lloyd had been the man in the nine jersey as Cardiff Blues started the run of games that made the second half of the season so special.

Tomos Williams Gloucester
Tomos Williams scored that memorable try in Bilbao

When comparing the two players, on the face of it they played with quite distinctly different styles last season, but it’s that which makes the 2018/19 battle at scrum-half so interesting.

At 23 Tomos is the younger man, and as such plays with that exuberance youth brings. He’s snappy with his passes, dangerous around the fringes, and has an attacking mind frame that can get him into trouble, but can also dictate the tempo of a game.

His form last season saw him earn a call-up to the Six Nations squad as injury cover, before he made his long-awaited Wales debut in Washington DC against South Africa, scoring a try to cap an excellent performance.

However, if Tomos is to push on with both Cardiff Blues and Wales, with the World Cup looming, his game management will need to develop in order to stop putting his team under pressure through poorly organised exits and to dictate the tempo when at times slowing the game down is necessary.

On the flip side, with 169 Cardiff Blues appearances and 28 Wales caps under his belt, Lloyd is the more experienced of the two. Trusted as a leader on the field, and thrown into action when a calm head is required, Lloyd was seen last season as the safe pair of hands.

Lloyd Williams Ospreys
Lloyd Williams has picked up a reputation as a keen box kicker in recent years

Seeing out important games became his speciality at the business end of the campaign, but ask Lloyd and I’m sure he would prefer to be starting in the nine jersey, getting the backline moving and returning to the scrum-half who broke onto the season as a very dangerous runner from the base of a breakdown or set piece.

That was the catalyst behind spending a summer with the Wales 7s setup, culminating in a trip to the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco. A search to bring that attacking mindset back along with the speed of ball that at one point had him as back-up Wales scrum-half to Rhys Webb.

It’s interesting that, in a basic form of describing both players aims for the season, they are actually trying to become a very similar type of player. One who attacks as a default but has the level headed ability to slow the pace down when necessary, as well as speed it up.

Behind them, there is an equally intriguing, if slightly less high profile, battle to earn the third choice scrum-half spot and put pressure on the Williams’.

Lewis Jones has been the back-up number nine at Cardiff Blues for three seasons now, after coming through the academy, being released before being re-signed and playing 66 games between 2012 and 2015.

Lewis Jones Newport
Lewis Jones hasn’t seen a huge amount of first team action in the last two years

However, since the start of the 2016/17 season he has played just 18 minutes of rugby across the Pro14 and Challenge Cup, leaving him dangling in the 90s of appearances and consigned to development cup and Premiership action.

Jones is still only 25 though, and has the ability to do a job when called upon, as a livewire scrum-half who rarely stops talking on the field. Barking orders at his forwards or getting the backs playing off him, he is a natural leader on the field, and could well find himself leading the new U23/A team when not in the first team.

However, Jones will find himself having to fend off the next scrum-half off the conveyor belt as both U23/A team nine and third choice in the first team, as Dane Blacker makes the step up from age grade to senior rugby.

The 20-year-old has been around the scene for some time now, after spending the last two seasons as a key man in the Cardiff Blues Anglo-Welsh Cup scene, and winning 15 Wales U20 caps playing in the U20 Six Nations and the Junior World Championship.

Dane Blacker 7s
Dane Blacker will want 2018/19 to be his breakthrough season

A short loan spell at Dragons, which saw him get Pro14 experience and bag a try, has aided his development and with at least one of Tomos and Lloyd likely to be involved with Team Wales either through November or February/March, there could well be first team opportunities come his way at the Arms Park.

He will need to brush up on his delivery from the base of a breakdown or the back of his set piece, but his running game is of a very high quality and only goes to add to the exciting scrum-half ranks we have at Cardiff Blues this season.

Fly Half

Linking up with our scrum-halves at half-back will be one of three men, each of whom more than capable of running a good attacking game at Cardiff Blues.

Like with the number nine jersey, there is a two-way battle for the first choice for the fly-half spot at the Arms Park, which arguably is the most intense one-on-one dogfight at the club currently, in terms of playing ability.

Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe would walk into the number ten jersey at plenty of European clubs, such is their quality and form, but unfortunately there is a decision to be made between them at the Arms Park.

In an effort to get both of them on the field at the same time during the second half of last season, Anscombe was the man who vacated the fly-half spot purely on the basis that he can also slot in at full-back. Their 10/15 axis was a huge reason why Cardiff Blues were so successful from February to May.

Gareth Anscombe Pau
Gareth Anscombe has been shifted to full-back to accommodate Jarrod Evans

When you look at the squad for this season the only arrival in the backline has been Jason Harries on the wing, so when selecting a best Cardiff Blues XV at the moment, you would be hard pressed to find someone not continuing with the Evans and Anscombe dual playmaker setup.

However, despite my personal preference for Wales being Patchell and Anscombe replicating what Evans and Anscombe do at the Arms Park, the man known as ‘Chicken’ has an admirable determination to be the main man wearing the ten jersey for both club and country.

When you see how the 27-year-old step into the fly-half slot in Bilbao and act as one of the major catalysts for that comeback in the second half, it’s difficult to ignore the talent he has, but Evans had such a superb breakout season last year it’s also difficult to ignore the fact that at 22 he will only get better.

John Mulvihill has an immensely tricky task keeping both men happy and involved next season, but as a Cardiff Blues supporter it is hugely exciting to see two high class fly-halves in the squad at the same time.

Jarrod Evans Kings
Jarrod Evans really should have been on the Wales tour this summer

Behind Anscombe and Evans there is a man in the form of Steve Shingler who, although perhaps lacking the full-on flair of his fellow tens, is the sturdy fly-half that ever squad needs, especially during international periods when Pro14s are won and lost.

When Shingler is at his confident best standing flat to the line, the platform he offers those outside him makes our attacking game look very dangerous, and as one of the best footballers in the squad he puts pressure on opponents through a controlled kicking game.

With 50 appearances in just two seasons, the 27-year-old has become a key member of the squad at the Arms Park, and with his ball carrying meaning he can slot in as a footballing inside-centre when required, he will be crucial to a successful season for Cardiff Blues once again.

Steve Shingler Glasgow H
Steven Shingler is more than capable of being called upon when required

Now the senior fly-halves are out the way, we can focus on what will be our first taste of the battle for the ten jersey in the future.

During the U23/A season that will take place during the first few months of the season, seeing who will play at fly-half for the development team between Ben Jones and Ben Thomas will be the most under-the-radar intriguing battle at the Arms Park.

The pair of 19-year-olds started their head-to-head slightly early at the Junior World Championship this summer, but unfortunately it was cut short by injury to Jones, who has been out ahead of Thomas in terms of appearances for Wales U20 and in the Anglo-Welsh Cup so far.

A more attack-minded fly-half, Jones is very busy on the field, demanding the ball at first receiver and a real danger due to his searing pace when he spots a gap.

Ben Jones Exeter
Ben Jones made his Pro14 debut last season

Thomas on the other hand is slightly more cultured in his footballing approach, and more power based in his running that could see him slot in at inside-centre in the long-term.

For now he’s being developed as a ten though, and it is certainly worth keeping an eye on these two as they prepare to do battle at Cardiff Blues, and hopefully for Wales, over the next few years, in what is a good time for fans of fly-halves in Wales’ Capital Region.

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