Team Report: Front Row

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With the 2020/21 season on the horizon, the Team Report returns to assess the upcoming campaign’s Cardiff Blues squad that will challenge once again in the Guinness Pro14 and European Challenge Cup.

John Mulvihill will take charge of a 48-man senior squad over the next nine months, with the hope being that the league play-offs will be reached for the first time and we’ll return to the knockout stages of European competition.

We start, as ever, with the boys up front who are looking to build on a season in which Cardiff Blues were the best scrummaging side in the Pro14.

Loosehead

The number one jersey is boosted this season, after a year in which we managed just three senior options, by the return of Rhys Carre to the Arms Park after an eventful 12 months away with reigning Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup champions Saracens.

Carre headed for London in the summer of 2019 after Project Reset saw him leave for Sarries, first coming off the bench five times for Wales during the Rugby World Cup. The 22-year-old then played eight times for his new club before the season was suspended, scoring one try. He is now back at Cardiff Blues looking to add to his 20 appearances in all competitions.

Also in the loosehead ranks, bringing the experience to the position, is Rhys Gill who starts his seventh season at the Arms Park having also spent time at Saracens, making 145 appearances for the English club and winning multiple trophies at Allianz Park.

Since returning in the summer of 2016, the 33-year-old has been largely first choice in the number one jersey for Cardiff Blues making 68 appearances in all competitions to add up to 75 games altogether for the club, and will continue this season as he approaches the twilight stage of his career.

Next in terms of age is Brad Thyer, with the one-club man now 27 and set to also start his eighth season at the club, having made his debut way back in November 2014, although he really had to wait until the 2017/18 campaign to properly break into the first team.

Now sitting on 77 appearances for Cardiff Blues, Thyer is a reliant and consistent option for John Mulvihill to turn to when needed, and has got into double figures of games for each of the last three seasons, continually improving as he approaches the prime of his career as a prop.

The final member of the loosehead corps was one of the most impressive players in the early part of last season as Corey Domachowski bounced back from a disappointing 2018/19 campaign to play 14 times last year, impressing with his scrummaging and physicality around the field.

Starting this season having just turned 24, this will be a critical 12 months for the young man as he makes the transition from exciting young talent to senior first team member, with the possibility of international honours on the horizon next summer when Wales head out during the British & Irish Lions tour.

Backing up the four guys in the senior squad from the Academy is Theo Bevacqua, the loosehead who has joined Cardiff Blues through the Welsh Exiles programme from the Harlequins Academy after earning rave reviews for his performances during the U20 Six Nations for Wales U20, and will study at Cardiff University alongside rugby.

Hooker

It’s an interesting time at hooker with a number of players battling for the number two jersey, but they are led at the moment by Kristian Dacey who is preparing his 11th season with Cardiff Blues as one of the most experienced and respected figures in the squad, thanks to 159 appearances in all competitions and regularly captaining the side, as well as being a fan favourite.

A broken foot caused him to miss much of last season, restricting him to eight appearances, but as one of the few players to come out of the Scarlets game back in August with any credit thanks to his lineout throwing and carrying in particular, he will continue to be a key figure at the Arms Park this season.

Behind Dacey there is then a three-way battle to act as backup. The senior of those three is Kirby Myhill, with the former Wales U20 hooker starting his fifth season at Cardiff Blues with 61 appearances under his belt including 10 last season.

Probably the closest to Dacey in terms of playing style, the 28-year-old is also a converted back rower who is strong around the field rather than famed for his grunt at set piece and in close contact.

Battling with him is Liam Belcher, the hooker with the redemption story as he was released by Cardiff Blues in the summer of 2017 but after an impressive season at the Dragons he returned to the Arms Park and hasn’t looked back since.

Still only 24, Belcher is an incredibly mobile hooker with a wicked turn of pace and was the the man largely turned to by Mulvihill last season while Dacey was injured, starting 11 Pro14 and Challenge Cup games as part of 15 total appearances.

Adding to the competition is Ethan Lewis, with the Wales U20 international now 26 and preparing for a ninth season with Cardiff Blues, having played 51 games in all competitions thus far, as well as featuring 74 times for Cardiff RFC.

One start in eight appearances last season leaves him firmly as fourth choice going into this campaign, but with international call-ups and injuries likely to test the squad, strength in depth will be absolutely key for John Mulvihill.

Then with a fifth dimension to the hooker battle, Iestyn Harris has signed a first professional deal over the last few months after impressing for Wales U20 and overcoming a serious knee injury that cost him any rugby during the 2018/19 season.

Making a comeback last year, Harris played eight times for Cardiff RFC, impressing with his solid set piece skills and physicality, as part of a Blue and Blacks side that was set to dominate Welsh semi-professional rugby until the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Tighthead

Rewind a few seasons and tighthead was a real problem position for Cardiff Blues, but going into the 2020/21 season it has arguably never been stronger. Starting with the current Wales international, Dillon Lewis, who established himself as second choice in the national squad during the Rugby World Cup before graduating to the number three jersey during the Six Nations with Tomas Francis injured.

At club level this will be Lewis’ seventh season at the Arms Park. Now 24, it could well be the year that sees him really graduate from talented youngster to senior international tighthead, as he adds to his 53 appearances in all competitions.

With Lewis likely to be away for much of the coming season with Wales though, attention will turn to Dmitri Arhip as the first choice tighthead in the Cardiff Blues squad, three years on from signing from the Ospreys after a Montpellier move went up in smoke.

A bicep injury in the early part of the last year restricted his appearances, but now back fit and firing he is ready to add to his 23 appearances at the age of 31, still in his prime of propping and preparing to destroy scrums around Europe.

The battle to back him up will then be between experience and young talent. The elder statesman is Scott Andrews, the Welsh international who is also 31 and coming off what was arguably his best season for Cardiff Blues last season.

Now fourth on the post-2003 appearances list, Andrews sits on 183 games in all competitions with 200 in his sights, coming off 10 starts in 2019/20, his most since 2012/13, where he matched his around the field ability with a really strong scrummaging performance.

The first youngster is in the shape of Keiron Assiratti, who seems to have been around forever but is still only 23, entering the new season with 13 appearances last season during which he largely acted as a backup to Andrews while Arhip was injured and Lewis away.

This off season Assiratti has spent time on loan at Bristol, learning a new clulture, experiencing the Gallagher Premiership and learning off the likes of John Afoa and Kyle Sinckler, looking to add to his compact yet powerful scrummaging style that can cause problems for years to come.

Finally, Will Davies-King has signed a first professional deal over the last few months, having taken the long way round to senior professional rugby after playing for Chepstow RFC, going to Cardiff Met, being picked up by Pontypridd and Cardiff before finally signing for the Cardiff Blues Academy in 2018.

A Wales U20 international, Davies-King is now 22 and growing into some frame which should suggest he is a physical player and powerful scrummager. He made his debut off the bench away at Calvisano in the Challenge Cup last season.

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