The 2017/18 season will go down in Cardiff Blues history for a myriad of reasons, from the off-field turmoil of the head coach search, to the European Challenge Cup win and the retirement of Fa’ao Filise after 116 years of playing.
It will also be remembered as the season that a number of young players really made their mark on the first team, with Wales honours no doubt to come. Owen Lane, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams and Seb Davies can all look on the last campaign as one where they became established rugby players at the Arms Park.
There was one player who somewhat slipped under the radar in all of the press attention and supporter hysteria though, as Garyn Smith made his own personal breakthrough into first team reckoning with Cardiff Blues.
Of course his main contribution to the season came in the form of winning the penalty that Gareth Anscombe kicked in Bilbao to bring the trophy home, an often forgotten fine piece of play to keep his kick through in field, allow the Gloucster player time to get to their feet and then clamp onto the ball to win the favour of Jerome Garces.
However, Smith had a campaign of consistently important pieces of play that went un-noticed, but earned him links (mainly from me) to being a bolter in Team Wales squads after Jon Davies’ long-term injury.
The main area of his play that was so impressive, bearing in mind Smith was just 22-years-old until the summer, was his defence.
For many young players, coming through the ranks as a centre can be difficult as they are shafted out to the wing due to lacking the ability or awareness to deal with the defensive nuances that particularly outside centre come with.
Even experienced centres can be caught out with their positioning leaving big gaps to be exploited by opposition attacks.
Scott Williams and Rey Lee-Lo both make errors that result in tries being conceded eventually as Williams gets stuck in no-man’s land, not putting pressure on the ball carrier or drifting to cover the space outside him, leading to Argentina making an easy outside break.
Lee-Lo, meanwhile, chooses to blitz but does not make it to the ball carrier who ships the ball wide and allows the Ospreys to take advantage of the huge hole left in the defensive line by the Samoan centre.
Defending from outside centre in particular is about trying to anticipate where the attack is going, and making decisions quickly. If, as even top class international centres are susceptible to, you make a poor decision, the results are generally at least a line break, at worst a try conceded.
That is why Garyn Smith’s defensive performances at such a young age were so remarkable last season, as he led the Cardiff Blues defence in some valiant efforts.
The staple of defensive play is tackling, and right from when Garyn Smith burst on to the scene with a run of games at the end of the 2015/16 season it was clear that he had technique far superior to other young players that come through the ranks as a midfielder.
With a 92% tackle success rate, Smith had the best percentage of any Cardiff Blues back last season, and it showed as he played an active part in huge efforts without the ball against the likes of Munster, Cheetahs and Zebre during the Six Nations period.
It stands him in good stead, particularly looking at the tackle in the final clip against Leinster, for a permanent move to inside centre in the future, but it’s at outside centre that he shows off his reading of the game.
What you can see from the three clips is the effect of a season under Shaun Edwards on a young centre like Garyn Smith in the important position of outside centre in the classic Shaun Edwards blitz.
The defensive system of Edwards involves the entire defensive line in the phase, despite only one or two players actually taking part in the tackle.
For Smith it’s about making the decision to come up quickly on the outside and forcing the fly-half into choosing between a risky floated pass out wide, which the winger outside Garyn would be interested in intercepting, or restricting the attack into turning back inside.
Especially noticeable is his work between the two phases in the first clip against Zebre, as Josh Turnbull is called around to the blindside. Not a surprise to see Smith named in the leadership group this season.
There is a third option for the fly-half when the defence comes up though, and that is to stick with the pre-called play and pick out the midfield target coming onto the ball a bit deeper from the gain line.
This is where Garyn Smith can make his big plays if he makes the right decision to spot blitz and carries it out successfully.
Coming out of the line to make a play sees him either prevent the opposition getting the ball to a dangerous overlap, taking the momentum out of an attack or, in an ideal world, it at least brings the opposition down well behind the gainline and at best forces a turnover.
The amount of times Smith made these plays this season, especially for a young man, is what has put him right on the first team radar. If he can carry on that form, the only way is up, but what of his game in attack?
Well Smith is certainly no slouch with ball-in-hand, transferring the speed of his blitz and the power of his tackling into his ball carrying, combining them with a decent step off his right foot as shown in the first clip.
Averaging four metres per carry last season, he perhaps doesn’t have the out-and-out pace to make consistent outside breaks from 13, but his dynamic ball carrying is perfect for an inside centre in terms of being able to hit the gain line on a crash ball, or be an option at the back of a screen play.
There is more than just ball carrying to playing at 12 though, as the inside centre has to cover as a playmaker when required.
This is the area in which Smith hasn’t been fully testes yet, but he showed glimpses of his creative abilities last season.
He’s got the footballing skills and the vision to link play well, but spending time under John Mulvihill and Jason Strange will no doubt improve his distribution and decision making in this area, with Mulvihill in particular showing signs early on of the Australian love of a footballing inside centre.
If Smith can get comfortable at stepping in to first receiver when required, he has a bright future at 12, with the likes of Harri Millard and Cam Lewis coming through the system behind him at outside centre, as well as Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill looking to move in from the wing.
Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo were on fine form in the second half of last season, but with Smith snapping at their heels, and Jack Roberts approaching a return to full fitness, there is an intriguing battle brewing in the Arms Park midfield.