The Team Report moves into midfield today for a look at a centre corps that has an intriguing mix of experience, age and playing style.
There are some new faces and some who have been around a while now, but most importantly there is plenty of quality for John Mulvihill to pick from, the trick will be getting the combinations right to deal with and test the opposition, and impose Cardiff Blues’ style of play on a game.
We start with a man who I do not think it is an exaggeration to say has been one of the best centres in Europe over the last five years, as Rey Lee-Lo prepares for his sixth season at the Arms Park with 22 tries from 107 games to his name.
The Samoan international is almost superhuman in the way he plays the game, beating the first man for fun every time and making defensive reads via telepathy, and also in the way he produces these fine performances week-in, week-out. A spot in the Guinness Pro14’s Dream Team for the 2019/20 season was thoroughly deserved.
His partner in crime, on and off the pitch, is of course Willis Halaholo, the hot stepper himself who is back from a tough campaign last time out to battle his way back into Wales contention. It was just after his first international call-up last November that he tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Cheetahs.
Now fully fit though he is preparing to lead Cardiff Blues from inside centre with his sharp footwork, physicality on both sides of the ball, and the through his playmaking role that he often takes on, whether that’s as a footballer or a distributor.
Slotting in to replace Halaholo for much of last season was Ben Thomas who had a solid breakthrough season having impressed for Cardiff RFC over the previous two years. 13 appearances across the league and Europe saw flashes of what he is capable of in that playmaker role at inside centre.
The trick for the 21-year-old now is to produce that higher quality play more consistently now, and cut down on the errors that you would expect from a play coming through in his position. His vision and skillset are unquestioned, what he needs now is to start controlling proceedings as an attacking leader.
Playing the back up role in the midfield then are three still young homegrown players. They are led by Garyn Smith who was probably the standout player over the two games that finished the 2019/20 season in August, coming off the bench to great effect against Scarlets and then playing a key part in the win over Ospreys.
On both occasions he played at outside centre, having dabbled at inside centre over the last few years, with his out-to-in running causing real problems whether he was carrying or acting as a dummy runner. That helped straighten the Cardiff Blues attack and keep the opposition defence narrow, something which will be key to our game plan this season.
A different style of outside centre is Harri Millard, a player who is more likely to try and use his pace to beat a man on the outside rather than straighten the line in the way Smith does, which did contribute to the struggles against the Scarlets back in August.
There’s a question over whether the 24-year-old should be seen as a winger first going forward, but there will be games where playing him at outside centre will suit, against the South African sides for example, and he will hope to add to his seven tries in 31 games so far in his career.
Finally at centre then, the new kid on the block is Max Llewellyn, who like Thomas has graduated to the first team after impressing for Cardiff RFC over the previous two years. While with the Blue and Blacks he largely played at outside centre, and even on the wing, it is inside centre where the former Ysgol Glantaf man is going to make the grade.
Against Edinburgh and Ospreys last season he displayed a physical edge, but also an intelligence to his carrying, targeting weak shoulders and half-gaps, looking to get his hands through tackles to get offloads away, while in defence his tackle technique was faultless and put him in good stead to be a defensive leader for years to come.