For too many years now, the second row has been the achilles heel of Cardiff Blues. Lacking the bulk and power to add to the scrum, attacking breakdown, ball carrying or tackling strength.
Now though the tide seems to be turning, and the second part of the 2020/21 Team Report looks at an engine room that is a little more high performance than the unreliable versions we’ve seen over the last few seasons.
A big part of that is down to the signing of Cory Hill, as the 25-cap Wales international moves away from Dragons back to the Arms Park. A Pontypridd native he came through the Cardiff Blues Academy but was released in 2013, heading to Moseley before landing in Newport, and is now back in the capital to make his mark on the first team.
Although not the biggest player around physically, Hill’s work rate means he will be effective on both sides of the ball, and he will also add to the leadership group which has been somewhat underwhelming over the last two years, having captained Dragons and Wales.
Who partners him in a first choice Cardiff Blues XV is an interesting question, with the most obvious out-and-out second row option being Seb Davies. The 24-year-old has had a bit of an up-and-down career to date, falling in and out of favour at various times, but either side of lockdown he put in strong performances against Benetton and Ospreys.
A new Dad, something which did wonders for the likes of Corey Domachowski and Matthew Morgan last season, Davies is already on 70 appearances in all competitions and can now be viewed as a key member of the first team squad. Hopefully the added responsibility off field can help him take on the additional responsibility on the field, as if he plays well this season then so will the team.
On the other hand there is Josh Turnbull, the most consistent performer at the Cardiff Blues since arriving in 2014, and a man who we have talked about permanently shifting from the back row into the second row for about as long. Up until now he has been the best second row and the best blindside flanker in the squad.
However, with the emergence of Shane Lewis-Hughes and James Botham in the back row, as well as the signing of Sam Moore, there is strength in the back row that may well allow Turnbull to move into the engine room, especially when Hill is likely to be away with the national team for much of the season.
Behind the three battling it out for the second row spots in the starting team there is then some of the best depth we have seen at lock for a good while.
Starting with James Ratti who had a very impressive first season at the Arms Park in 2019/20, going from being released by Ospreys to signed as a Cardiff RFC player and then graduating into the Cardiff Blues squad, leading to him starting two festive derbies last Christmas.
Still only 22 he displayed a maturity to his carrying game that will be vital to the team this season, as well as an athleticism that is key at lineout time. If his upward trajectory continues from the last campaign then the signing of Ratti may well be the shrewdest piece of business done by the club in recent years.
With him is another former Osprey in the form of Rory Thornton, who only made eight appearances last season but can have a crucial role to play as the best lineout forward at the club. Using all of his 6ft7 frame, using him wisely can come up trumps if it means a solid set piece.
The issue with Thornton is that he does lack in other areas when compared to the likes of Davies and Ratti, but still only 25 he has time to work on those, and provides another good option depth-wise, as well as adding variety to the second row ranks.
The third senior second row option is then Ben Murphy, a player who I have written and spoken a lot about but hasn’t quite had the game time to prove himself yet. A 6ft5, 120kg second row does not come through the ranks at Cardiff Blues often, and even though we did briefly release him, he has been involved in the squad again for two years now.
Having more than proven himself at Indigo Group Premiership level with Merthyr, the 24-year-old has not looked out of place during his three Guinness Pro14 appearances, most recently against Edinburgh back in February, but is increasingly approaching a point where he needs to force his way into the matchday 23 regularly.
Finally, there is a new kid on the bloke in the second row at the Arms Park, as Teddy Williams signs his first professional deal at just 19 years old, with Cardiff Blues having fought off interest from across the Severn Bridge to keep him in the Academy and then bring him into the first team.
The former Ysgol Glantaf 1st XV captain has already turned out for Cardiff RFC, Cardiff Blues A and won Wales U20 honours, and having now graduated the age grade set ups at domestic and international level, will now turn his attention to make it in the first team. With the likes of Hill and Turnbull as mentors, there is no reason why this talented youngster can’t go far.