Squad balance decision a tricky one for John Mulvihill

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The Guinness Pro14 finally returns next week as the 2019/20 finishes in a truncated fashion with Cardiff Blues heading to Scarlets before hosting the Ospreys at Rodney Parade.

With European places decided on league positions as they were before the season was suspended in February and John Mulvihill’s men unable to qualify for the semi-finals, the two games are officially dead rubbers.

That raises the question of what sort of teams the Australian will put out over the two weeks. Will we see full-strength sides, experimental selections or a mixture of both?

The argument to blood youngsters is a solid one. The Cardiff Blues squad has a number of exciting players coming through at the moment as the Academy takes on key importance in the post-coronavirus world, and developing that strength in depth will be key over the next few years.

As we see time and time again in the Pro14, the teams that are successful at the end of the season are not those with the highest number of star players, but with the best second and third XVs that can compete when internationals are unavailable or injuries strike.

There is also a financial bonus to bringing through good quality players from the Academy into the first team as they will generally command less in wages than new signings, and the Welsh Rugby Union offer rewards for the more internationals that are developed in a pathway.

For John Mulvihill he will probably never be in a situation again where Cardiff Blues have two Welsh derbies against potentially full-strength Scarlets and Ospreys teams but that actually don’t count for anything in terms of league positions and even bragging rights.

Josh Adams Scarlets

It’s certainly a chance to put a talented team together and just tell them to go out, enjoy the experience and learn as much as possible.

There are counter-arguments to that way of thinking though, which I am personally leaning towards.

Firstly, if the Scarlets and Ospreys do choose to go with full-strength sides, which you’d imagine particularly the Turks will ahead of their European Challenge Cup quarter-final against Toulon next month, then it could be a bloodbath.

At some point an opportunity for experience and development can cease being beneficial and start to become harmful to young players if they are on the receiving end of a hammering. There’s a reason we don’t enter sides in the Anglo-Welsh or British & Irish Cups anymore.

This is where introducing mixed sides would be beneficial, making selections that mix the likes of Ben Murphy or James Ratti with Cory Hill or Josh Turnbull in the second row, James Botham with Josh Navidi in the back row, Max Llewellyn with Rey Lee-Lo in the centre or Ioan Davies with Josh Adams or Hallam Amos in the back three.

It’s not difficult to imagine John Mulvihill naming two quite different 23s, mixing experience with young talent and giving as many players as possible game time after nearly six months without taking the field and ahead of the 2020/21 season getting underway at the start of October.

Ioan Davies Uruguay

This would also deal with the potential for knocks which are likely to be picked up after so long without playing in a game environment and after not an ideal amount of contact training before returning to the field.

On the other hand though, there is a question over how happy senior players will be with missing out on game time, especially internationals who are looking to push for a space in the Autumn squad, and those who want to be fit and firing before a punishing Team Wales schedule over October and November.

These two games, plus a maximum of two Pro14 games if the league does get underway on the first weekend of October, will be their only chance to get minutes under their belts and to perform in front of Wayne Pivac and his staff, with the aforementioned Scarlets and Dragons players getting a chance to play European knockout rugby.

The financial benefits of getting more players into the Team Wales squad is also of high importance at this time of economic restriction, therefore it is in the interests of Cardiff Blues to give their internationals as much exposure as possible.

Personally I’d be largely going with a core of first choice players for both games, with perhaps two or three spots in the 23 being filled by young players who will benefit from the experience of being in that matchday environment and playing in these games.

One thing is for sure, John Mulvihill has some tricky decisions to make to keep his squad happy and strike a balance with his team selections. An unenviable job!

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