Cardiff Blues announced the make-up of the academy squad for the 2019/20 season this week, with seven new faces joining the set-up.
Three players have moved on after signing professional contracts, with Kieron Assiratti, Shane Lewis-Hughes and James Botham now officially first team squad members, while Callum Bradbury will be registered with Cardiff RFC but continue to train with Cardiff Blues for the summer.
Dane Blacker, Ben Jones, Cameron Lewis, Corey Howells and George Thomas have all departed for pastures new, but there are still 13 players existing from last season, as Gruff Rees brings through talent to bolster the senior squad in this time of financial restriction.
We start a look at this season’s academy up front, where Iestyn Harris begins his third year in the academy looking to make the step up from young player to first team contender, and fill that gap as a physical hooker which we are lacking.
A regular for Wales U20 during 2017/18, Harris didn’t feature much on the field last season, but will be hoping to get some Cardiff Blues A minutes, as well as possibly see some Indigo Group Premiership game time, to gauge if he can step up to senior rugby.
Just behind him on the hooker ladder is Cameron Lewis, who officially joins the academy having been attached to us last season while playing BUCS Super Rugby for Cardiff University, and for Aberavon RFC in the Premiership.
He also won Wales U19 honours towards the end of last season, and will be looking to get involved with the Wales U20 setup this year, as well as continue his development in the Premiership.
The third and final hooker in the squad is one of the new, younger faces, as Efan Daniel signs an academy contract at the age of 16. The former Rhondda Schoolboy captained Cardiff Blues U16 North to Regional Age Grade Championship success last season and will play for the U18s this coming campaign.
On the tighthead there are two returning faces, as Will Davies-King begins his second season with Cardiff Blues by stepping up to train full-time with the first team.
A latecomer to the development pathway, the former Chepstow RFC player attended Cardiff Met and played for both Cardiff RFC and Pontypridd while studying, before joining the academy last season. He’ll be looking to get Cardiff Blues A minutes over the next few months.
The other is Ben Warren, fresh from playing in all five of Wales U20s games at the World Rugby U20 Championship, starting three of those and holding up well during his first campaign.
He’ll no doubt be back involved for his second year at U20 level next season, as well as possibly turning out in the Premiership at some point.
Another who is preparing for their second year with Wales U20 is second row Teddy Williams, as the former Ysgol Glantaf 1st XV captain also trains with the first-team on a full-time basis.
A serious talent, and in a position we are currently lacking in, especially with the departure of Christ Tshiunza to Exeter, Williams will likely add to last season’s Cardiff Blues A appearances early in the season before playing in the Premiership.
Joining him in training full-time and playing for Cardiff Blues A will be back-rower Alun Lawrence, who many see as the long-term replacement for Nick Williams at number eight after a strong season with Pontypridd.
Around 6ft tall and approaching 110kg, he still has a bit of filling out to do, but as an explosive carrying option he is showing signs of being able to step up to the next level, which will hopefully be seen this year.
The back row conveyor belt doesn’t stop there though, with Ioan Rhys Davies set to start his second year with Wales U20 having flown out to Argentina as an injury replacement recently, while Callun James is also one to keep an eye on having made his Cardiff RFC debut last season.
A new face in the academy back row ranks is Ethan Fackrell, as the Coleg y Cymoedd student signs a contract after an impressive first year at U18 level which saw him earn Wales U18 honours and win the WRU College League.
Into the backs and scrum-half Jamie Hill will step up to train with the first team on a full-time basis after impressing the coaches last season, and earning himself Wales U20 honours in the process.
Released two years ago as an 18-year-old, a strong season with the University of South Wales and Pontypridd saw him re-sign last summer and he will now act as third choice scrum-half while Tomos Williams is away.
Joining him as an academy scrum-half is Ethan Lloyd, with the Ysgol Cwm Rhondda pupil having impressed for Cardiff Blues U18 in his first season at that level, as well as having picked up Wales U18 honours.
There’s a similar setup at fly-half where senior academy member Rhys Davies will train full-time with the first team this season in his second year in the academy, after impressing last season when turning out for Premiership champions Merthyr.
Meanwhile new face Ben Burnell joins the academy right out of captaining the combined Cardiff Blues U16 side to a 100% record during April, ahead of wearing the number 10 jersey for the U18s this coming season.
Perhaps the most recognisable name in the academy this season is Ben Thomas, as the 20-year-old comes into pre-season off the back of a stand-out campaign with Cardiff RFC, helping the Blue and Blacks to second in the Premiership and a Welsh Cup win.
Another who will train full-time with the first team this summer, it will be interesting to see whether he’s viewed as a fly-half or an inside centre, but wherever he ends up he has the skillset to be a successful.
He will be joined in first team training by another member of that Cardiff RFC team from last season, as Max Llewellyn makes the step up after an impressive year with the Blue and Blacks, capped off by playing five times at the World Rugby U20 Championship.
A rangy runner who reads the game well, if he can add a decent level of physicality to his arsenal, he could be an option at both inside and outside centre over the next few years.
There are two new faces in the midfield ranks in the academy, with Mason Grady following his brother Cory Allen in coming through the Cardiff Blues development pathway.
After an impressive first year with Cardiff Blues U18, that saw him earn Wales U18 honours, the Glantaf pupil has signed a first academy contract.
Ryan Wilkins is another of the Cardiff Blues U16s to sign after winning the Regional Age Grade Championship with Cardiff Blues U16 North, he will step up into the U18 side this coming season.
Finally the academy squad is completed with two returning players in the back three, with Alex Varney set for a second season with Cardiff Blues after making the switch from the Scarlets setup.
The winger made an appearance for Cardiff Blues A last season, before playing BUCS Super Rugby with Cardiff University, and will continue his development this campaign.
Meanwhile Ioan Davies will step up to training full-time with the first team this summer after a very impressive Wales U20 campaign at the World Rugby U20 Championship that saw him start all five games out in Argentina.
A full-back who appears to have an excellent all-round game, he has been one to keep an eye on for a year or two now, and has played for Cardiff RFC as well as scoring off the bench for Cardiff Blues against Uruguay last November.
All-in-all an academy squad packed with talent, particularly in amongst the senior players who will train with the first-team this summer, and, in some cases, no doubt push for some Pro14 minutes as the season wears on.
On the other end of the scale, although it’s probably concerning for the game as a whole, it’s good to see Cardiff Blues tying players showing potential at 16 or 17 down to academy contracts in a bid to avoid the player drain across the Severn Bridge.
The future continues to be bright at the Arms Park!