The ultimate prize at stake

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The looming 2018/19 campaign is interesting for a number of reasons at the Arms Park, as Cardiff Blues enter an exciting new era in the club’s history.

As reigning European Challenge Cup champions we have some more eyes on us after a successful second half of last season, and after adding quality in the form of Dmitri Arhip and Samu Manoa to the squad, there is a hope that the season will end up with qualification for the Guinness Pro14 play-offs.

For the Welsh players though, there is a greater prize to play for as they embark on the last season of rugby before the squads are named for next September’s Rugby World Cup.

With that in mind, let’s run through which Cardiff Blues players will have an eye on a plane seat to Japan next summer.

Rhys Gill

With Gethin Jenkins starting what looks like his final season as a player fighting a calf injury and starting to concentrate on his coaching, it could well fall to Gill to take on the responsibility as senior loosehead prop in the squad.

The 31-year-old has plenty of club experience, combining his 46 Cardiff Blues appearances with seven successful seasons at Saracens, but that time in England has seen him miss out on international caps with Wales.

He hasn’t appeared in a Warren Gatland squad since November 2016, and with Rob Evans, Wyn Jones and Nicky Smith ahead of him in the pecking order it won’t be an easy task to get into the squad, but if Gill puts in some solid performances he could well be an option of injury were to strike.

Zebre Rhys Gill
Rhys Gill will need a big season to return to the Welsh setup

Kris Dacey

Despite hooker being the least debated about position in a Wales XV, as Ken Owens has basically nailed down the number two jersey barring disaster, there is an intriguing battle surfacing to play backup to the Sherriff of Carmarthen.

Ryan Elias, Scott Otten, Scott Baldwin, Elliott Dee and possibly even Richard Hibbard and Marc Jones will also have an eye on a seat to Japan.

At Cardiff Blues, however, a fit and firing Kris Dacey is ready to stake his claim this season. A back injury impacted on his ability to train and play regularly at the back end of last season and cost him a chance to tour Argentina, but he’s ready to win his first cap since last December with some strong performances at the Arms Park.

Dillon Lewis and Scott Andrews

Unlike hooker, the tighthead spot in the Wales team is somewhat up for grabs in the next year, especially with Samson Lee having only played four test matches in the last 18 months due to a myriad of injury problems.

With Lee not touring over the summer it gave others the chance to stake their claim for the number three jersey, and the man who came home head and shoulders above the rest was Dillon Lewis, as the 22-year-old earned rave reviews for his dealing with the scrum of South Africa and Argentina.

With a open play game superior to his Welsh tighthead rivals, Lewis appears to have nailed down a spot in the matchday 23, but will need regular game time at the Arms Park to keep hold of that.

Dillon Newport
Dillon Lewis did himself no harm over the summer

In Andrews there is someone who could restrict that game time with Cardiff Blues and possibly play himself into contention for a World Cup spot.

Often a player who’s selection comes in for criticism on social media, Andrews has been a stalwart at the Arms Park for 10 seasons now and stepped in admirably against South Africa last Autumn when the tighthead stocks in Wales were depleted by injuries and player selection policies.

With injury problems for Lee and Dragons’ Leon Brown, and Tomas Francis not regularly playing for Exeter, Andrews could end up being called upon if he gets enough minutes at the Arms Park.

Seb Davies and Rory Thornton

The young second row pairing are each trying to secure a spot in the Wales squad for next summer after varying levels of success trying to break into Warren Gatland’s plans in their careers so far.

For Davies there has been valuable time spent around the senior Wales squad, as he’s been included in the Autumn, Six Nations and Summer squads last season, but a frustrating lack of time spent in his primary position of lock.

Of his five starts so far three have come in the back row, and included a game against Argentina where he made no carries, but if he continues with his impressive Cardiff Blues form, his chance in the second row will no doubt be on the horizon.

Seb Davies SA
Seb’s future is in the second row

For Thornton his frustration comes in the form of not being selected at all.

He was the Wales U20 captain in 2014/15, but hasn’t really capitalised on that potential due to the competitiveness in the second row ranks of Wales as well as his own injury problems at the Ospreys.

He’ll now want to kick on at Cardiff Blues to compete with Seb, Cory Hill, Bradley Davies, Jake Ball, Luke Charteris and Adam Beard for that space in the Wales starting XV next to Alun Wyn Jones.

Josh Turnbull

The battle for the Welsh back row is seriously intense, and we’ll get on to the number seven jersey next, but another spot up for grabs is that ‘enforcer’ role at six or eight.

Taulupe Faletau has the starting number eight role nailed down, but behind him there is some uncertainty over the fitness of Aaron Shingler, who will be out until at least Christmas after knee surgery, and Ross Moriarty, who has ongoing back problems.

Aaron Wainwright capped a meteoric rise in the Welsh game with a spot on the summer tour, but accompanying him was Josh Turnbull after he made 30 appearances for Cardiff Blues last year.

As an accomplished lineout forward, a machine of a tackler and with the ability to play on the blindside, in the second row and at eight, Turnbull could well force his way into the World Cup squad as a reliable utility man with another strong season at the Arms Park.

Josh Turnbull Glasgow
Josh Turnbull’s consistency and versatility could work in his favour

Ellis Jenkins and Josh Navidi

Now the meaty stuff, the Wales openside berth.

With the retirement of Sam Warburton the battle to wear the number seven jersey has reached new levels, and the debate is raging in the media and on social media. It could reach absolute fever pitch by next summer.

Justin Tipuric would appear to be the front runner as things stand, but James Davies, Ollie Griffiths and Thomas Young are all snapping at his heels and could all do the job to a high standard.

At Cardiff Blues though, we have two perfectly suitable candidates, with Ellis Jenkins and Josh Navidi both earning rave reviews for their performances in a red jersey over the last year.

Josh Navidi France
Josh Navidi took his chance brilliantly with Wales last season

It was last season’s Autumn Internationals that Navidi burst onto the scene, and he continued his international form into the Six Nations when he finished with the third most tackles in the tournament, after years of consistent showings at the Arms Park.

Then Jenkins took over in the summer and co-captained Wales to three wins against South Africa and Argentina, leading an assault on the breakdown in South America which will make him difficult to ignore.

I don’t envy Warren Gatland in this sense at all.

Tomos and Lloyd Williams

With Rhys Webb having left for Toulon and subsequently ruled out of selection, there is a jersey up for grabs over the next year.

Gareth Davies is currently in the driving seat, but he’s by no means a shoe-in to start at the World Cup with some reservations over the quality of his box kick and the consistency of his pass.

Aled Davies, now at Ospreys, and Rhodri Williams, now at Dragons, will be doing their best to force themselves into Warren Gatland’s thinking, but at Cardiff Blues their are two players looking to do their best to be on the plane.

At differing stages of their careers, Tomos is the real up and coming talent, with just two seasons of senior rugby under his belt and only 23 years old. He has impressed in that short time though, and scored a try on his Wales debut against South Africa.

Tomos Williams SA
Tomos forces his way over against South Africa

Lloyd, on the other hand, is trying to rediscover the form that won him 28 caps between 2011 and 2016. Time spent with the Wales 7s setup this summer was used to improve the speed of his game, and if he can combine that with his experience of game management, he could well be an option for Japan.

Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe

It’ll be interesting to see what happens at fly-half over the next year, as Dan Biggar has moved to Northampton Saints and could suffer from ‘out of sight, out of mind’, as well as having player release issues against him. Add in the fact there are increasing calls for Biggar to be dropped, and Gatland has a decision to make.

With Wales now looking to play an expansive and fast paced attacking game, Rhys Patchell and Cardiff Blues’ Gareth Anscombe seem the obvious candidates, as players prepared to take the ball to the line and make something happen, as well as being creative enough to see play developing on the flanks.

However, the form fly-half in Wales last season was undoubtedly Jarrod Evans and the 22-year-old was desperately unlucky not to tour the Americas over the summer.

If he keeps putting in impressive performances week in, week out though, Gatland can’t ignore him forever. The way we play rugby is changing, and Evans and Anscombe could well be at the heart of that.

Jarrod Evans Pau
Jarrod Evans was the standout player for Cardiff Blues last season

Garyn Smith

Last week’s analysis of the young centre’s performances last season received a fantastic reception, and only goes to feed the idea that Smith could well have been one of the most underrated Welsh players throughout last season.

The way the game is going, the difference between playing inside and outside centre is starting to grow, and it is showing in Wales as we are struggling to find a player who is regularly fit enough to play backup to Jonathan Davies, undoubtedly one of the best 13s in the world.

Throughout the last campaign Smith showed that he has the defensive nuances of outside centre nailed down, and with an ability to cover at 12, he could well be an option for Gatland as a bolter in the squad to Japan. He just needs to displace the duo of Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo first.

Garyn Smith is plugging away under the radar

Owen Lane

The final Cardiff Blues player throwing their hat into the ring for Wales selection through this season is arguably the breakout player in the Welsh regional game last season.

Had it not been for the hand injury picked up in Bilbao, Owen Lane would have stood an excellent chance of being on the plane to Argentina over the summer, after scoring six tries in 11 Pro14 games since making his debut last November.

Pace, power and a reading of the game that belies his 20 years, Lane could well be fancying a berth on the wing in Japan, before switching his attention to playing outside centre further down the line.

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