Cardiff Blues Director of Rugby David Young and his coaching staff have the tricky job of selecting a matchday 23 for the European Challenge Cup round of 16 encounter with London Irish on Friday evening.
With international players back available to go with the fit-again Kris Dacey, Olly Robinson and Ellis Jenkins, as well as potentially Owen Lane who could be ready to bounce back on the wing, there’s a lot of close calls to consider ahead of the trip to Brentford.
Kris Dacey v Liam Belcher
It’s unclear exactly why Kris Dacey has played sparingly since the turn of the year, but he returned to action looking sharp against Edinburgh last time out with two big carries off the back of mauls late in the game.
In the meantime Liam Belcher has become one of the surprises of the season, packing a surprisingly powerful carrying punch and delivering consistently at the lineout to step up from a squad player to a serious contender for the number two jersey in big games.
When it comes to who takes the field from the start on Friday it may come down to what balance Young wants to strike. Irish, a strong defensive side without a massive set piece, may well require a more mobile selection to break them down meaning Belcher gets the nod with Dacey’s experience coming off the bench a valuable tool.
Dmitri Arhip v Dillon Lewis
It’s a similar question one over from the hooker as the tighthead prop question also needs to be asked. Dmitri Arhip has been the stalwart here all season, arguably having his best campaign since arriving at the Arms Park as he’s largely stayed fit and healthy in a much improved Cardiff pack.
Dillon Lewis though, at some point, needs to become the man who is turned to in the big games if he harbours ambitions of taking on the Welsh number three jersey at some point. At 25 he still has time on his side, but this might be the perfect game for Dai Young to assess where someone who could well become his protégé is in his development.
Lewis has the advantage of being the more mobile, and linking up well with his old mate Jarrod Evans in attack, but it can be difficult to trade that for the set piece solidity that Arhip offers. A decision that may well be scrutinised in hindsight for Young, but I’d go with Lewis.
Seb Davies v Rory Thornton v Josh Turnbull
If we assume that Cory Hill’s spot in the engine room is nailed down then there is a chance to partner up with him for one of the three aforementioned players. The assumption would that Seb Davies is the favourite as the player who has started all season and put in some performances that begin to see him reaching the potential he showed pre-number eight experiment.
However, it has been noticeable over the last two months that Davies has been the man withdrawn in the final quarter of games in favour of leaving Rory Thornton and his set piece control on the field. With the likes of Steve Mafi and Rob Simmons likely starting for the Irish side, the lineout will be a hotly contested area of the game.
Then to throw a spanner in the works is Josh Turnbull, the best forward in the squad this season but perhaps lacking a spot in the back row due to the sheer depth in quality available with the internationals back. His ball carrying and defensive work rate will always have to be a consideration in any team selection, even before reaching the leadership he has shown over the last few months.
For me though, I find it difficult to look past a Hill and Davies partnership on Friday, with the former running the lineout while the latter brings some extra physicality to our play around the field.
Olly Robinson v Ellis Jenkins v James Botham v Josh Navidi v Josh Turnbull
It’s crazy that we can be without Shane Lewis-Hughes and Will Boyde, have young talent like Gwilym Bradley and Alun Lawrence immediately discounted and still have to whittle a back row down from these five just underlines the strength in depth we have in this area.
Rather than run through the pros and cons of each player, as it wouldn’t actually help make the decision, I’m going to say that all five definitely make my matchday 23. Josh Turnbull, who retains the number eight jersey for me, covers second row if required.
From there Josh Navidi starts at blindside flanker, playing with Ellis Jenkins for the first time since a Heineken Champions Cup win over Lyon in October 2018, as James Botham and Olly Robinson prepare to make an impact towards the end of the game. Not sure there’s actually a bad selection decision in this area of the pitch though!
Hallam Amos v Matthew Morgan v Aled Summerhill v Owen Lane
Now this selection firstly hinges on the fitness of Owen Lane. If the winger is fit then he starts opposite Josh Adams without question, and the debate is simply Amos v Morgan for full-back. If he’s not fit though then Young will have to consider whether Amos starts at 15 with Summerhill on the wing, or Morgan starts at 15 with one of Amos and Summerhill on the wing.
In that circumstance I would be very keen to see Summerhill retain his spot out wide. The Rhondda Rocket has been in excellent form over the last few weeks and his sheer pace out wide will be key against a London Irish side that won’t give up many line breaks easily.
They are also a team that tend to shun the tactic of overly kicking to compete and usually opt to find touch when clearing their lines, therefore Matthew Morgan would be my choice as full-back with Hallam Amos on the bench as Nipper’s ability to step in at first receiver and give the attack two options will be an important aspect as he try to break the English side down.
My Cardiff Blues team, injuries dependent: Matthew Morgan, Owen Lane/Aled Summerhill, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Josh Adams, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Rhys Carre/Corey Domachowski, Liam Belcher, Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Cory Hill, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Turnbull (c)
Replacements: Kris Dacey, Rhys Carre/Rhys Gill, Dmitri Arhip, Olly Robinson, James Botham, Lloyd Williams, Ben Thomas, Hallam Amos