This season will see a new competition for the professional teams in Wales to challenge in, as the Celtic Cup is setup as a development tournament for Welsh and Irish clubs in the tier below the Guinness Pro14.
After the demise of the British and Irish Cup there was a requirement for a new competition to be setup to breach that gap between the semi-professional Principality Premiership and the professional league for young players coming through the system.
The player development pathway was fully reviewed by the WRU with the help of some independent advisors, which found that there was a need for fully professional A teams to be setup by the four regions.
As a result, with the Irish A teams also at a loose end without the BIC, there will now be a seven week competition during the first two months of the season, where teams will play six games before the top Welsh and Irish sides meet in a Final.
For Cardiff Blues, who will play a friendly against Scarlets on the 29th August, this will start when we travel to Rodney Parade to face Dragons on Friday 7th September.
At this point some details of the new competition are not yet known, with the main sticking point being the make-up of the squads as either out-and-out A teams, or U23 development sides with restrictions on how many players of a certain age can be picked.
Despite that, at Cardiff Blues the players involved will be pretty much the same, with the majority of the squad coming from academy players, and recent graduates in that 20-23 year old age range who have not quite made the step up to the first team yet.
They will then be complimented by fringe first team players and some stepping up from the Premiership, with Cardiff RFC making a number of their signings with the new Cardiff Blues development team in mind.
So with that already sorted, let’s have a look at the players who will benefit from game time with the new U23/A team this season.
With the loosehead stocks at Cardiff Blues looking particularly healthy, the development side will be a perfect outlet for the likes of Rhys Carre and Corey Domachowski to hone their skills, when Gethin Jenkins, Rhys Gill and Brad Thyer are fit.
It’s a similar story at hooker, with Matthew Rees, Kris Dacey and Kirby Myhill holding down the first team spots, leaving Ethan Lewis and Liam Belcher to battle it out for the starting jersey in the new side, while Wales U20 hooker Iestyn Harris will also fancy furthering his development in a senior professional environment.
On the tighthead side meanwhile, Will Davies-King has been signed after a successful summer with Wales U20s and the coaches will want to take a look at how he fares in senior rugby. Kieron Assiratti might have something to say about that though as he looks to make the jump from the pathway to the first team on a full-time basis.
Ben Warren toured South Africa with the Wales U18s squad this summer and will benefit from some minutes in this competition before entering the national U20 setup, and Scott Andrews could be available to provide some experience with Dillon Lewis, Dmitri Arhip and Anton Peikisrhvili likely to be ahead of him in the first team pecking order.
Like Davies-King up front, Ben Murphy has been picked up from the Premiership after impressing over the last two seasons with the dominant Merthyr side under Lee Jarvis and then Dale Mcintosh.
He will be joined in the second row ranks by fellow youngsters Callum Bradbury, who’s long term future is likely to be at lock despite playing on the flank against Leicester Tigers, and Joe Miles, who featured for Wales U20 in last season’s U20 Six Nations.
James Down could also drop down to the development side when Seb Davies, George Earle and Rory Thornton are fit for the first team, as could Macauley Cook.
Cook’s availability comes due to the strength in depth Cardiff Blues possess within the back row ranks, and this extends to the development side as the conveyor belt of talent continues to churn out players with a serious amount of potential.
Shane Lewis-Hughes is now in his second year out of the Wales U20 setup and is the ideal player to feature in the development team on the blindside, while current U20 squad members James Botham and Alun Lawrence impressed against Leicester Tigers and will want to build on that in the early part of the season.
Below them there is Welsh College League winning captain with Coleg y Cymoedd Callun James and Ioan Rhys Davies, who is currently with the Wales U18 side in South Africa, who will benefit from the experience of playing in this competition.
After a nasty shoulder injury last season, Sion Bennett will also be after some game time to impress new head coach John Mulvihill, while Cardiff RFC’s Morgan Allen played for Cardiff Blues on the weekend and could well be offered more minutes above Premiership level.
The ideal candidate to start at scrum-half for the development side will be Dane Blacker as he graduates the Wales U20 setup after a successful few years, and he could well be joined by half-back partner during this time, Ben Jones, at fly-half.
Jamie Hill is also likely to feature after being picked up from University of South Wales over the summer, and Ben Thomas will be in contention as he moves into his first full season of being in the Wales U20 squad.
Academy fly-half Rhys Davies could also be in line for some exposure at this level, although the experience of first team fringe players Lewis Jones and Steven Shingler, and Cardiff RFC’s Welsh international Martin Roberts, will also be called upon to provide a steady hand in a key position when required.
There’s an exciting crop of midfielders working their way through the Cardiff Blues development pathway at the moment, led at this time by Garyn Smith in the first team squad.
Behind him Harri Millard will be looking to make the leap into the first team squad this season, and could well use this competition as a stepping stone to do so, while Cameron Lewis is in the same position in his second season out of the Wales U20 setup.
Max Llewellyn appeared for the first time in the national U20 team last season, and has the size and basic skillset to become a high quality player, while Daf Smith played for Wales sides on various sevens circuits during 2017/18.
A fly-half by trade, but Ben Thomas could also slot in at inside centre if required, while Jack Roberts could feature if he recovers from a knee injury during October.
If they are struggling to make it into the first team and want to be given some time to hone their skills at outside centre, Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill could be given a chance to wear the number 13 jersey in the development side, with the defensive positioning side of playing that position one that needs experience before playing in the Pro14.
Although still a touch on the young side, the academy squad for this season has a number of exciting outside backs, led by Ioan Davies who made his Cardiff Blues bow in the pre-season friendly against Leicester Tigers on the weekend.
On the wings Corey Howells played for Cardiff RFC last season, George Thomas appeared for Pontypridd, and Alex Varney had an impressive season for Scarlets U18 that saw him gain representative sevens honours before switching to the Arms Park over the summer.
Of the first team players, the development side could well see Dan Fish feature as he continues his return from a serious hamstring injury, and Blaine Scully could also get a run out as he recovers from foot surgery over the summer.
Merthyr RFC’s Jay Baker could also be an option after his release from the Ospreys last season.