Team Report: Back Row

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As we come to the end of the first week of the Team Report, and with the front five having been analysed, we finish the forwards with a look at the Back Row.

After some not so encouraging news on positions so far, we finally reach an area of the field where Cardiff Blues are strong, as we have traditionally been, with some greats of the club, and the game itself having won six, seven or eight at the Arms Park.

Martyn Williams, Xavier Rush, Dan Baugh, Sam Warburton, Ma’ama Molitika, Robin Sowden-Taylor, Hemi Taylor, Stuart Lane and a host of other names I’ll have undoubtedly forgotten, have all made back row an historically excellent position.

These days it is led by two Welsh internationals, who could well become British and Irish Lions, and will undoubtedly join that list at the culmination of their playing careers, with 284 combined appearances in all competitions.

One is Ellis Jenkins, the current club captain who is fighting his way back to full fitness after an horrific ACL tear picked up against South Africa last Autumn, and known as Simba due to being the future Lion King.

In terms of his injury the word is that it’s still very much 50-50 on whether he makes it to Japan, and while it would be great to see him out there, there is a school of thought that suggests don’t risk it, get the knee right and avoid further injury complications to prolong what will be a superb career.

If he does that we could see him back on the Arms Park around the October/November period, when other teams will still have players away at the World Cup, which would be a massive boost for the Cardiff Blues.

Ellis Jenkins Lyon
Ellis Jenkins is still battling back from his knee ligament injury

The other is Josh Navidi, who is almost certain to be spending a few months in Japan having recovered from an elbow injury to take a full part in the pre-World Cup training camp.

It’s been a meteoric rise for the 28-year-old who, in just two years, has gone from a consistently good performer on the domestic scene, to a consistently excellent performer on the international scene.

Even with injury and international call-ups he still played 12 times for Cardiff Blues last season, and another dozen appearances in a World Cup year would be superb as we look to push on in the Pro14.

Joining them as Wales internationals in the back row is Josh Turnbull, as he begins his sixth Cardiff Blues season looking to add to his 117 appearances, having been unlucky to miss out on the pre-World Cup training squad.

His work-rate, tackle count, set piece ability and leadership made him a strong case to be selected, but it’s his versatility in particular that makes him an odd submission, as being able to cover a number of positions in a 31-man squad could have been key.

However, it is that versatility that will make him extra important at the Arms Park this season, as he will likely be asked to cover second row on a number of occasions in order to bring that experience and physicality into an engine room lacking those attributes. Turnbull will be an especially key figure during that World Cup period.

Josh Turnbull Scarlets
Josh Turnbull will be a key figure next season

Also bringing vast experience to the forward pack is a man who has become vitally important for Cardiff Blues over the past three years, so much so that we were prepared to fight hard to keep him. That man is of course Nick Williams.

Likely to be his last season as a professional rugby player, the number eight has been a talismanic figure at the Arms Park since his arrival thanks to his bulldozer like carrying, tone-setting defensive hits and general leadership both on and off-the-field.

Anyone suggesting he was over-the-hill just needs to watch his man-of-the-match performance against Ospreys at Judgement Day to understand his importance to the team, which will continue into next season.

Of course, at 35 and with the end of his career close, we will have to manage Big Nick carefully, and the signing of Will Boyde from Scarlets certainly enables us to do that.

The 24-year-old comes in having made 80 appearances in all competitions since making his debut back in 2014, with many supporters in West Wales surprised and disappointed to see him depart Parc y Scarlets.

Looking at the Cardiff Blues back row ranks currently, it seems likely he’ll be utilised as a blindside flanker in the early part of the season, but is more than capable of covering number eight with his slightly smaller frame belying an explosive ball carrier in a similar mould to Josh Navidi.

Will Boyde Scarlets
Will Boyde has signed from Scarlets

On the opposite flank in that early part of the season is almost certainly going to be Olly Robinson, with the soon-to-be 28-year-old adding last season’s Turnover King award to the year before’s Most Tackles prize.

You’ll struggle to find a player in the league, or possibly the Northern Hemisphere, who has performed with more consistency over the last two years, which makes it all the more bizarre Bristol allowed him to leave when they were in the Championship.

However, it is definitely a gain for Cardiff Blues as Robinson has become a firm fan favourite, and with his first appearance in the new season will break the half-century mark to kick-off what is sure to be another strong season of headwear adjusting.

Now, you may think that six high quality senior back row players is enough, but now we move on to the exciting youngsters coming through the ranks behind them, with the future looking very bright indeed.

Shane Lewis-Hughes enjoyed an excellent breakthrough season in 2018/19, making his Heineken Cup debut against Glasgow in January and not looking back as he appeared in every game for the remainder of the campaign.

The 21-year-old is a classic blindside, combining some hard carrying with physical defence, and regularly appearing towards the top of the tackles made list. On top of that, he appears to be someone who could well be moulded into a quality set piece operator, both as a lineout jumper and maul defender.

shane-lewis-hughes-exeter
Shane Lewis-Hughes had an excellent second half of the season

He could well form an excellent flanker partnership with another player recently rewarded with a first professional contract, James Botham.

Also 21, he was unlucky with injuries in the first half of the season but returned to make his Pro14 debut against Connacht in January, coming off the bench against Munster and Connacht towards the end of the campaign, and performing well for Cardiff RFC in between,

With greater prowess over the ball and a carrying style that combines speed and power well, there is some debate over whether he should be brought through as an openside or a number eight, but whichever is chosen hopefully this season is his breakthrough.

Just behind Lewis-Hughes and Botham, and possibly completing what could be the Cardiff Blues A back row for 2019, is Alun Lawrence, who spent last season impressing at number eight with Pontypridd.

A big ball carrier he was impressive in the win over Cardiff back on Good Friday, and will similarly be hoping to make his mark on the first team this season in order to win a professional contract.

With Ioan Rhys Davies having won his first Wales U20 cap this season, and Callun James having made his Cardiff RFC debut, the conveyor belt appears to be working overtime in producing back row talent at the Arms Park.

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