Nearly three years ago now I took a look at what the best U23 XV that Cardiff Blues could put out as the financial picture changed dramatically at the club during the summer of 2017.
A severe restriction on spending at the Arms Park that cost the signing of Franco van der Merwe, nearly saw a number of existing players head out the door and would contribute to the departure of Danny Wilson the following summer meant that properly developing talent from within became an absolute priority.
Of those fifteen there are some that haven’t quite made it, whether that be due to moving on to pastures new or having to retire due to injury, while some are still trying to make their breakthrough into the first team and will be named in this new U23 team three years later.
However there are a number of players who have became established first team names as well as five who have become full Wales internationals, forming the core of the current Cardiff Blues squad and leading the way for this next crop of young stars coming through.
So after looking at Gruff Rees’ importance as Cardiff Blues Academy Manager last week, with the COVID-19 pandemic set to have a serious impact on finances at the Arms Park once again, I’ve updated the U23 side for 2020 with players born after January 1st 1997 eligible.
1. Rhys Carre
A good start to the new Cardiff Blues U23 side with a player who hasn’t even been officially unveiled yet, but with Rhys Carre taking over from Cory Hill as being the worst kept secret as a new signing at the Arms Park, he makes it in as the loosehead prop.
It’s been a rapid rise for the big carrying Carre who went from a standout player at U20 level and in the Indigo Group Premiership over the summer of 2018 to being the second choice loosehead for Wales at the Rugby World Cup and starting for Saracens in the Heineken Champions Cup by the end of 2019.
Coming through behind the Cardiff boy is Theo Bevacqua, the recently signed prop from Harlequins through the Welsh Exiles system who made his Wales U20 debut at the start of the year and is certainly one to keep an eye on, but with Carre still qualifying for the hypothetical U23 side for another two years he gets the nod.
2. Iestyn Harris
At hooker is someone who is set for a big year in his development as Iestyn Harris looks to make the step up from Indigo Group Premiership level to pushing for a breakthrough into the first team.
After a promising 2017/18 campaign during which he played for the Cardiff Blues Premiership Select XV in the British and Irish Cup and won 10 Wales U20 caps across the U20 Six Nations and World Rugby U20 Championship, a serious knee injury kept him out of action until a Cardiff RFC debut in December 2019.
With hooker a position still very much up for grabs in John Mulvihill’s squad there could well be chances for Harris to stake his claim, with the highly rated Efan Daniel coming through the pathway behind him still eligible for the U18s in 2020/21.
3. Keiron Assiratti
A name that has been around the first team for a little while at tighthead as Assiratti has 38 Cardiff Blues appearances to his name after making a debut in tough circumstances against Gloucester in the April 2017 European Challenge Cup quarter-final at Kingsholm.
Although still not properly established in the matchday squad with Dillon Lewis, Dmitri Arhip and Scott Andrews ahead of him in the pecking order, Assiratti has made significant strides in the last three years and is still only young as a prop with the next three years key for his development.
He will have plenty of competition in that time though with Will Davies-King challenging him while Ben Warren has impressed with Wales U20 over the last two years and Nathan Evans has signed an Academy deal after catching the eye for Cardiff Blues U18 and Cardiff & Vale College.
4. James Ratti
Picking up the second row from the Ospreys last summer is turning into a potential masterstroke from Cardiff Blues and RFC, as the former Wales U20 has made a serious impression first for the Blue and Blacks and then stepping up to John Mulvihill’s squad.
Stand out performances against the Dragons and Ospreys over the festive period thrust him into the limelight as an athletic lock with a bit of a physical edge, providing a ball carrying option and breakdown presence that was much sought after during the first half of the season.
With the newly signed Cory Hill likely to be away with Team Wales for extended spells across October and November, and February and March, with Seb Davies also in the mix for a call-up, Ratti could be crucial to any Cardiff Blues success over the next 12 months.
5. Teddy Williams
A big hope for the future of Cardiff Blues, Teddy Williams will take another step towards challenging for the first team in the coming year having impressed at each rung on the ladder so far in his short career.
The former Ysgol Glantaf captain was standout for Wales U18 and was set to be a key figure in this season’s Wales U20 side before injury and COVID-19 put paid to that, but he did not look out of place when making his Cardiff RFC debut when still 18 in the first half of the season.
There are a few eyes on Rhys Anstey coming through the system via Cardiff Blues U18 and Coleg y Cymoedd, but for now Teddy Williams is certainly the talent that it is hoped will continue to build up our second row resources at the Arms Park.
6. Shane Lewis-Hughes
The first survivor from the 2017 U23 team, Lewis-Hughes has certainly built on his single Guinness Pro14 appearances during the 16/17 campaign, although he had to wait until early 2018 to do so when an impressive Heineken Champions Cup debut put him right into the first team mix.
Since then he has not looked back, currently sitting on 32 Cardiff Blues appearances and earning a call-up to Wayne Pivac’s first Wales squad for the game against the Barbarians in November last year.
With Josh Turnbull likely to be seen more as a second row going forward, Ellis Jenkins still on the comeback trail from injury and Josh Navidi likely to be away with Team Wales, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Lewis-Hughes nail down that six jersey sooner rather than later, although as always there is talent coming through the system with Ioan Rhys Davies and Alex Mann both showing potential.
7. James Botham
Continuing alongside Lewis-Hughes in the hypothetical U23 setup is openside flanker Botham, who has struggled with injury over the last two years but continued to impress when fit, making his first Guinness Pro14 and European Challenge Cup starts before Christmas.
If he stays fit and can get a run of games under his belt over the next year then it’s more than likely that the wider rugby public will sit up and take note of Botham beyond being ‘Beefy’s Grandson’, as the 22-year-old has all the tools to be yet another top level openside plying his trade at the Arms Park.
Like on the blindside there is plenty of competition in the pathway with Gwilym Bradley signing through the Welsh Exiles and making his Wales U20 debut this season, while Callun James earned a Wales Sevens call-up, but Botham is the real deal and gets the start.
8. Sam Moore
In what may be a record waiting time for a Cardiff Blues player to make his debut, number eight Sam Moore should finally pull the jersey on for the first time in August, some six months after joining the club from Sale Sharks in February.
The 21-year-old impressed as England came second in the U20 Six Nations in 2018, even being called up to train with the senior national squad during that time, but injuries restricted him to just a handful of Sale appearances in the intervening two years. He is still highly regarded though, and could be the big ball carrying number eight to take over from Nick Williams.
There is some good competition on the way through the pathway for the first time in a while though as Alun Lawrence continues to make strides while Evan Lloyd is highly rated coming out of the U18s. However, if Moore can stay fit and get games under his belt then it could be a very shrewd signing indeed.
9. Jamie Hill
At 21 this coming year will be an important one for scrum-half Hill who is a clearly talented player but is still yet to make his Cardiff Blues debut with Tomos Williams, Lloyd Williams and Lewis Jones ahead of him in the pecking order.
It’s been a slightly winding road to this point for Hill as he was initially released after playing for the U18s but a season impressing for the University of South Wales saw him re-signed in the summer of 2018, playing for Cardiff Blues A and earning Wales U20 honours until a serious ankle injury ruled him out for the second half of that season.
Coming back to effectively be first choice Pontypridd scrum-half in 2019/20, he has caught the eye at the Indigo Group Premiership level and will now look to push on in the first team, with Ethan Lloyd snapping at his heels after impressing for Cardiff RFC while still an U18.
10. Luke Scully
Another new signing for the Cardiff Blues and another player who has had injury troubles in his short career so far, as former Ospreys age grade fly-half Scully struggled during the 2018/19 season at Worcester Warriors with a quad injury that caused him to miss a sizeable amount of rugby.
Returning to action this season though the 20-year-old has impressed for Worcester Cavaliers, the English side’s A team, earning plaudits from his coach Gordon Ross, the former Scotland fly-half, and making his Wales U20 debut during the U20 Six Nations.
With comparisons drawn to Dan Biggar, the Neath native will be looking to live up to the hype as he joins at a time when the young fly-half battle at Cardiff Blues is really hotting up, with Ben Thomas, Jacob Beetham and Ben Burnell all potentially capable of pulling on the ten jersey.
11. Mason Grady
Arguably the most exciting prospect in Welsh rugby at the moment, let alone the Cardiff Blues, Grady burst on to the scene last summer with a stunning try for Wales U18 in South Africa, before impressing for Pontypridd and Wales U20 this season despite still being eligible to play U18 rugby.
Having come through the development pathway as an outside centre so far, Grady is also more than capable of playing on the wing, thanks to his natural mix of power and speed that is aided by his tall frame and excellent running style.
With that physical development that comes from full-time training it would not be a huge surprise to see Grady getting a few minutes in the first team sooner rather than later, and hopefully he begins an exciting period for wingers with talents such as Theo Cabango, Jake Thomas, Iwan Pyrs-Jones and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso on the way through.
12. Ben Thomas
Having turned this website into basically the ‘Ben Thomas Rugby Life’ over the last two years it would be churlish of me not to include the 21-year-old in the team, slotting in at inside centre after an accomplished debut season in the first team.
With Jarrod Evans and Willis Halaholo potentially involved in Wales squads for some or all of the 2020/21 season, Thomas could well become incredibly important in terms of Cardiff Blues having a successful campaign, as he continues his own development in that playmaker role either at 12, or we could see him start to slot in at fly-half more.
His potential is unquestioned, but now is the time to switch from exciting young talent into bona fide first team player, with the sky the limit for the former Cardiff & Vale College 1st XV captain.
13. Max Llewellyn
Reuniting the centre partnership that was so successful for Cardiff RFC in the 2018/19 season, Llewellyn has continued to impress for the Blue and Blacks during this campaign, with three tries in 13 appearances as he took on the responsibility of organising the midfield in Steve Law’s squad.
Admittedly there was a time where I was sceptical if the 21-year-old would be able to make the step up to the first team from the Indigo Group Premiership, but a fine full debut against Edinburgh in the final game before the season suspension certainly cast aside a number of doubts.
If he continues to develop physically then Llewellyn could well find himself in the role of the big carrying and defensive leading inside centre going forward, with Ryan Wilkins on an Academy contract going into his second year at U18 level potentially in a similar mould.
14. Owen Lane
The final survivor from the 2017 U23 team and a man that needs no introduction, The Lane Train. He’s certainly come a long way since having not even made his Guinness Pro14 or European debuts back then, although he hasn’t quite made the predicted switch to centre yet!
Lane is now on 23 tries in 43 league and European games, a quite stunning record, and has gone to make his senior Wales debut and play at the Rugby World Cup as an injury replacement.
Unfortunately injury once again prevented the 22-year-old from what would likely have been an opportunity to stake more of a claim over a wing berth in Wayne Pivac’s team during the recent Six Nations, but it’s only a matter of time before he proves himself at the very top level.
15. Ioan Davies
While a player like Lane has had the opportunity to shine in the Cardiff Blues first team and has grabbed it with both hands, perhaps a disappointment from the 2019/20 season so far has been the lack of minutes for Ioan Davies.
The full-back was a standout player for Wales U20 at the World Rugby U20 Championship in Argentina last summer and impressed during pre-season, but there’s only been a 31 minute outing at Edinburgh ahead of the season suspension to look back on so far.
Injuries have been an issue, but a continuing air of reluctance to select young players continues to hang over the club and it seems to be that which has prevented Davies, who has been compared to Leigh Halfpenny, from kicking on so far. Fingers crossed that changes over the next 12 months as the 20-year-old is supremely talented.
Cardiff Blues U23: Ioan Davies, Owen Lane, Max Llewellyn, Ben Thomas, Mason Grady, Luke Scully, Jamie Hill; Rhys Carre, Iestyn Harris, Keiron Assiratti, James Ratti, Teddy Williams, Shane Lewis-Hughes, James Botham, Sam Moore
Replacements: Efan Daniel, Theo Bevacqua, Will Davies-King, Rhys Anstey, Ioan Rhys Davies, Ethan Lloyd, Jacob Beetham, Theo Cabango