Team Report: Back Row

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The Team report moves from the tight five to arguably the greatest area of strength in the Cardiff Blues squad this season, as it has been for the last 10 seasons!

There is a conveyor belt of particularly flanker talent that continues to churn out top quality players at both the Arms Park and for Wales, and with some smart additions to the crop the depth that John Mulvihill has at his disposal in this position is frigthening.

We start with the most recognisable and, over the last two years, the best back rower in the Cardiff Blues squad, Josh Navidi. It’s been an incredible period in the 29-year-old’s career, which up until 2017 had been one that appeared to stop at being an Arms Park favourite.

However, after impressing on Wales’ 2017 tour of the Pacific he has gone on to establish himself as a first choice international option, currently sitting on 24 caps. Add this to 174 Cardiff Blues appearances, during which he has established himself as a hard carrying, touch tackling, expert jackal across the back row, and it’s impossible to underestimate his importance to Mulvihill’s squad.

The other Welsh international in the back row is the man who Navidi has replaced in the Wales squad, as Ellis Jenkins has endured a torrid two years dealing with the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered late in the game against South Africa in November 2018.

Three surgeries, plenty of rehabilitation and even a trip to America have taken place in the intervening period, but the 27-year-old is still a little way off returning to the field yet. When he does come to add to his 104 appearances for Cardiff Blues it will be a huge boost to have the club captain back in action.

Backing them up on the openside flank has been Olly Robinson, the 29-year-old entering his fourth season at the Arms Park after making the switch from Bristol and now a staunch fan favourite with 65 appearances under his belt in all competitions.

The consistency with which he churns out his all-action performances, alongside the iconic blue scrum cap, makes him a key member of the squad, as well as his year-round presence which ensures the standard of Cardiff Blues’ play stays as high as possible during international windows.

Assisting Robinson in that year-round role will be Will Boyde, who comes off the back of an impressive first season at the Arms Park after switching from the Scarlets last summer, during which he made 19 appearances between the league and Europe, and even captained the side in just his third month at the club.

Capable of playing across the back row, Boyde could be seen as a direct back-up to Josh Navidi when the latter is away with Wales, and will be a crucial member of the squad this season due to the amount of overlap between club and international games. Keeping him fit and on the field will be key to any success Cardiff Blues have in 2020/21.

Of course Josh Turnbull will also be involved in the back row ranks, even though he may well be utilised more in the second row than in previous years, with blindside flanker and number eight still positions in which he can be effective.

The 32-year-old is still playing high quality rugby, regularly topping tackle statistics, and with 137 appearances to his name is one of the most experienced members of the squad. No matter which number he is called on to wear, you can guarantee a fully committed performance from the former Scarlet.

Supporting the senior players will be four talented back rowers who could well be the backbone of this Cardiff Blues team and even Wales for many years to come.

They are led by Shane Lewis-Hughes who, since getting a shot in the starting XV in January 2019, has not looked back in his development, catching the eye at every step along the way with his work rate, physicality in the tackle, lineout work and general attitude which sees him want to improve and see the team win at every opportunity.

Already called up by Wayne Pivac to a Wales squad ahead of the Barbarians fixture last November, the 23-year-old is being tipped for another call-up this Autumn but first could find himself as the first choice blindside flanker in the Cardiff Blues squad when the season gets underway this Friday.

Against the Ospreys last month, Lewis-Hughes formed an excellent flanker partnership with James Botham, who is looking to have a proper breakthrough year after injury hampered him during the 2019/20 campaign in which he made four appearances in all competitions.

The 22-year-old has been a standout performer at each of his development stages along the way so far, but now needs an injury free run playing week-in, week-out to ensure he makes the jump from talented young player to senior first team player. If he does that successfully this season then a spot on Wales’ end of season tour during the British and Irish Lions’ campaign in South Africa could be on the cards.

There are then two players who could fill the number eight position in this back row of the future. The first is Sam Moore, the ‘new’ signing from Sale Sharks who actually arrived at the Cardiff Blues back in February, but recovery from a knee injury and then the coronavirus enforced lockdown prevented him from making his debut until the Ospreys game last month.

The 21-year-old’s integration into the first team won’t be instant, after such a lengthy spell out with injury, but the vital signs seem promising for the big carrying number eight to take over from the now retired Nick Williams.

Also looking to make his impact on the first team is Alun Lawrence, the 22-year-old number eight who has impressed for Pontypridd over the last two years and has now signed his first senior professional contract ahead of the new season.

Two appearances off the substitute bench in the Pro14 last season certainly suggested he had what it takes to make it at the top level, and with ball carrying such a weakness for Cardiff Blues in recent years there is no reason not to give Lawrence an opportunity to see if he can be the man to rectify the problem at some point during this upcoming campaign.

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