Youth v experience in Cardiff Blues selection conundrum

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Cardiff Blues begin a huge five weeks of action on Saturday night as the final four Guinness Pro14 games of the season get underway in Connacht, a 7.35pm kick-off.

Interim Director of Rugby Dai Young will no doubt have been pleased with what he saw in January when the capital city side recorded back-to-back wins over the Scarlets, but will also be acutely aware that a different challenge awaits from this weekend.

Those games against our West Wales rivals were out of the international window, with Dillon Lewis, Cory Hill, James Botham, Josh Navidi, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Willis Halaholo, Josh Adams and Hallam Amos all in the matchday 23 last time out at Parc y Scarlets.

With all nine now retained by the national team this weekend on a Six Nations fallow week, Young will be looking to the wider squad to step up and take on the mantle left by the international stars as Cardiff Blues bid to secure Heineken Champions Cup rugby for next season.

In some positions the next men up are obvious; Lloyd Williams at scrum-half, Aled Summerhill and Owen Lane on the wings, for example, while in other areas the selection will come down to fitness; Olly Robinson, Ellis Jenkins, Shane Lewis-Hughes and Will Boyde are all back row contenders but at various levels of returning from injury.

However, there are some conundrums that are similar to what we saw John Mulvihill go through during October or November; the battle between talented and youthful, or restricted and experienced. The answer is usually only known in hindsight, but Young’s selections over the next few weeks will indicate what his plans are for the future of the squad should he stay on at the Arms Park.

At tighthead, for example, Scott Andrews has bags of experience and was in good form last season, but Keiron Assiratti is the emerging talent off the back of a loan spell at Bristol Bears and is on course to usurp the 31-year-old as the backup to Dmitri Arhip.

In the second row Ben Murphy and James Ratti have impressed so far this season with their dynamism and physicality around the field, but Rory Thornton is the lineout specialist and has done a lot of good work fixing the set piece after last year’s horror show.

At scrum-half Lewis Jones is the club stalwart as a member of the Cardiff Blues 100 Club, and can see out a game if needed to, but Jamie Hill and Ellis Bevan both have big futures in the game, with the former in particular impressing off the bench against Munster back in October with his quality of pass, speed from the base and left foot kicking ability.

Finally, alongside them at half-back Jason Tovey is the game management expert with a left foot that people would pay good money for, but struggles to consistently get the talented backline outside him moving, while Ben Thomas has plenty of creative ability but little experience at fly-half and Luke Scully is highly rated but has hardly played at senior level.

The issue for Dai Young is that when the more experienced players are on form they are likely to deliver a result (think Benetton away last season), but when they have an off day we play seriously below par rugby (think Edinburgh away earlier this season).

However, with the younger players involved we are more likely to play better rugby with their undoubted talent and general air of youthful exuberance, but mistakes are to be expected as they learn their way through senior rugby that could cost games.

The hope would be that a solution is found in a mix of youth and experience, but with the front five and half-backs being so crucial to the fortunes of the team, especially against Irish opposition, it’s not going to be easy to find the right mix.

For my money I think it comes down to picking your matches. This weekend against Connacht, in the rain and wind of Galway, I think you rely on your experienced guys to marshall you around the Sportsground, with younger players on the bench that are prepared to come on and make a positive impact if required.

Then at home against Munster or away to Benetton, why not try out some younger players? I’d much rather fail to qualify for the Heineken Cup while developing some stars of the future than fail to qualify selecting players we already know everything about.

No easy choices for Dai Young though, it will be interesting to see how the next few weeks play out.

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