The Six Nations period is often a tough time for club sides. Shorn of their best players, playing important games in front of dwindling crowds and generally relegated to the back of people’s minds, yet seasons are won and lost in the two months.
However, with those internationals off playing in the red of Team Wales, the positive is that it can open the door for younger players to get their first proper exposure at the senior professional level, getting the chance to stake their claim for more regular involvement.
At Cardiff Blues one of those academy graduates who may well get that chance is Shane Lewis-Hughes, as John Mulvihill looks to youth to deal with a shortage of back row players.
Wales call-ups for Josh Navidi, Josh Turnbull and Seb Davies, as well as the long term injury to Ellis Jenkins, have left just Nick Williams and Olly Robinson as first team back-rowers. Macauley Cook is also able to cover there, while Sion Bennett is an option but has been allowed to travel with the Wales 7s squad to New Zealand and Australia.
As a result Lewis-Hughes and James Botham are the next in line, with the former having shown up well in Glasgow and at home against Lyon, and could well feature in the crunch match against Connacht this weekend.
It’s the end of a patient transition for the Valleys lad who started his career at Ferndale RFC and played in the fabled Rhondda Schools system before joining the Cardiff Blues Academy and playing for Coleg y Cymoedd’s all conquering rugby team.
Along the way he earned Wales U16 and U18 honours, before starting every game as Wales U20 won the U20 Six Nations Grand Slam in 2015/16, as well as in the 2017 World Junior Championship.
That season had seen him make his Cardiff Blues debut off the bench in the Guinness Pro14 against Scarlets, but for the next two years he found opportunities restricted to Anglo-Welsh Cup outings, as well as playing for Pontypridd in 2017/18 and Cardiff RFC in the early part of this season.
Over the last two weeks, as well as during the capped friendly against Uruguay back in November, he has taken the opportunity to show off his ability as a well-rounded blindside flanker though.
Like his fellow recent academy graduates Rhys Carre and Kieron Assiratti, Lewis-Hughes is a forward keen to look for a gap or a defender’s shoulder rather than taking them on one-on-one when carrying, in a bid to get his team front foot and quick ball.
However, his frame of around 6ft3 and 18st has more than enough power to beat an opposition player in a physical battle if required, offering an option as a one-out ball carrier that we sometimes struggle to produce in Wales.
That level of physicality translates into his defensive work as well, with two excellent lead tackles against Uruguay not only holding the ball carrier up before breaking the gainline, but actually sending them backwards a few metres.
In 75 minutes or so of action against Glasgow and Lyon, Lewis-Hughes was credited with 14 tackles, an impressive workrate considering they were his first European outings and first competitive Cardiff Blues games in two years. A solid base to build on.
Those are the basics for a young blindside of course, but what sets the 21-year-old apart from others is his technical ability at the set piece.
His athleticism makes Lewis-Hughes a threat as a lineout jumper, offering a jump speed that assists in securing his own ball at the front as well as disrupting the opposition throw.
It’s the maul work that is most impressive though, something that I’ve seen when show when turning out for the Blue and Blacks this season, and that secured this turnover against Lyon on Saturday.
He’s not initially obvious in the clip, but as Lyon wheel the maul he maintains his bind and when the drive collapses for a split second you can see him wrapped around the ball carrier underneath the blue scrum cap of Olly Robinson.
The production line of back row players at the Arms Park, for the Cardiff Blues and in Wales generally is impressive, and with the likes of Jim Botham, Ioan Rhys Davies and Callun James coming through the system there is more on the way.
At the moment the focus is on Lewis-Hughes though, and hopefully watching his quick progression from a youngster with potential to a bona fide first team option over the next few weeks.