With the Guinness Pro14 not starting until the last week of September due to the Rugby World Cup, the Celtic Cup, confirmed as taking place again in 2019, will take more of a centre stage this season.
The inaugural competition was an undoubted success last year, with the four Welsh regions and four Irish provinces playing six games of high quality development rugby, giving young players a chance to experience a professional environment, and players returning from injury the chance to play at a good level.
For Cardiff Blues we saw the likes of Liam Belcher, Shane Lewis-Hughes and Harri Millard all step into the first team via the Celtic Cup, as we pushed Scarlets all the way, narrowly missing out on a spot in the Final.
As well as the players though, the likes of Richie Rees, T Rhys Thomas and Gethin Jenkins all had a chance to improve their coaching skills in a professional environment, as the entire two months proved to be a success.
This season the Celtic Cup takes on even more importance in the Welsh capital, as restricted budgets means game time for Cardiff Blues A will hopefully see young players take a step from promising prospects to first team regulars.
As such, I’ve had a look at what the Cardiff Blues A squad should be looking like this season.
In the front row there is a split of two types of player; those on the cusp of the first team and those just stepping out of the academy and into senior rugby.
For Corey Domachowski, Liam Belcher and Kieron Assiratti, they have now spent at least two seasons each around the first team, but particularly for the two props, they have found minutes limited and largely had to play for Pontypridd.
As such, the chance to be involved in this environment should be one they are taking with both hands in a bid to prove they can mix it in the Pro14, especially with loosehead lacking depth and Dillon Lewis being away with Wales at tighthead.
Behind them there is some buzz about Ben Warren after completing a successful first seasons with Wales U19 and U20, respectively, while Iestyn Harris now needs to be getting regular game time if he is going to be making that next step into the first team after not playing much last year.
Providing loosehead cover may well come down to some players stepping up from Cardiff RFC, with former Cardiff Blues prop Thomas Davies, and Fraser Young, who played in the Celtic Cup last season, the obvious candidates.
This is arguably the most important area on the pitch for Cardiff Blues A during the upcoming Celtic Cup campaign, as the first team looks to add some strength in depth to a position that is currently looking light in quality, weight and bodies in general.
I’ve already had a look at how Ben Murphy could provide the physicality that we have been lacking at lock, while Callum Bradbury now needs to step up to the next level having spent a full season with Cardiff RFC, and Teddy Williams is exciting a lot of people after a strong showing for Wales U20 in the U20 Six Nations.
There are also likely to be opportunities for Anthony Cox, as the former Cardiff Blues U18s player is awarded a trial contract for the duration of the Celtic Cup season, and James Ratti, who has signed with Cardiff RFC from Ospreys.
Coaches Gethin Jenkins and T Rhys Thomas could also take the opportunity to add some experience to the pack at second row, with James Down looking to get game time under his belt, and Macauley Cook continuing his return to the engine room from blindside.
A particularly exciting position for Cardiff Blues A, as we continue the conveyor built of back row talent that has served us so well at the Arms Park, and Wales so well at the Principality Stadium next door.
Hopefully we will see Shane Lewis-Hughes, James Botham and Alun Lawrence begin to form a functional unit in the back row at some point, although that may well depend on whether they see Botham as an openside flanker or a number eight long-term.
Behind them Ioan Rhys Davies, who played for Wales U20 last season, and Callun James, who turned out for Cardiff RFC, are ones to keep an eye on as they make their first forays into this level, while Tim Grey has signed short-term from RGC and will be looking to impress.
At scrum-half it will be a big campaign for youngster Jamie Hill, who could well find himself playing in the Pro14 in the first two months of the season should either Lloyd Williams or Lewis Jones become unavailable or lose form.
There are also likely to be minutes for some Cardiff RFC players to step up with Tom Habberfield having signed from the Ospreys, while former Worcester Warriors A, Cardiff Met and Ealing Trailfinders nine Ben Williams has also joined the Blue and Blacks this off-season and could get a look-in.
Outside them is an interesting position as there is a conundrum for the coaches over whether they opt for an experienced player not necessarily a full-time fly-half, or a young fly-half making their way through the ranks.
They could choose to properly switch one of the senior full-backs, either Dan Fish or Matthew Morgan, to fly-half, with each requiring a few Celtic Cup starts wearing 10 to give them experience running the show.
Or they could look to promote Rhys Davies or Ben Thomas into the 10 jersey quicker than expected, with an added interest in Thomas’ case in terms of which position they see him playing at long-term.
There is only one obvious candidate to play centre in the Cardiff Blues A team this season and that is Max Llewellyn, after a successful year playing for Cardiff RFC. Around him depends on a number of factors.
As mentioned above, where Ben Thomas plays long-term will be key, as he may slot in more at 12 if he is seen as an inside centre, while how involved they get more regular first team players is another factor.
Harri Millard broke into the first team last season but may take the chance for regular rugby to keep improving, while Garyn Smith has an opportunity to develop more at inside centre, and we may even see Aled Summerhill wearing 13 with some suggesting it’s where his long-term future lies.
There is also the name of Sam Beard now to throw into the mix, as the former Edinburgh and Dragons centre has arrived at Cardiff RFC from Canterbury and will have to impress for Cardiff Blues A if he is after a professional deal back in the Northern Hemisphere.
Alternatively, we may see Aled Summerhill wearing 15, after switching to full-back in the second half away at Edinburgh last season and starting there the following week at home to the Southern Kings.
Another senior player who may take the chance to get some minutes under his belt is Dan Fish, should he continue to be seen as a full-back, while at the other end of the spectrum, both Ioan Davies and Alex Varney could do with the experience in a senior professional environment.
There is plenty of excitement to be had around the young players, and even the old heads looking to re-establish themselves in the first team, as the Cardiff Blues A squad comes together and the Celtic Cup inches closer.
If things go right during this campaign then hopefully it will set the first team up for the rest of the season.