Cardiff eyes on the Lions as squad selection looms

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Despite the disappointment of Friday’s European Challenge Cup defeat to London Irish, there will still be members of the Cardiff Blues squad harbouring British and Irish Lions ambitions.

Warren Gatland is set to name his squad for what is still a tour of South Africa on Thursday 6th May, and after a somewhat surprising Six Nations during which Wales came out victorious, Ireland and Scotland had mixed campaigns, and England finished fifth, there are some interesting selection choices for the New Zealander.

At the Arms Park there is a proud tradition to uphold as no club has provided more players to the Lions in the history of the touring side than Cardiff, with 58 players sent from the Welsh capital to New Zealand, Australia and South Africa over the years, from Gwyn Nicholls in 1899 to Sam Warburton in 2017.

So who is in line to continue that heritage this year? Well it starts with a question mark over fitness, but if Josh Navidi is fit then it would be hard to look beyond the all-action back-rower for a spot on the plane after really making a name for himself as a top quality international player over the last four years.

The 30-year-old flirted with international action back in the summer of 2013, touring Japan with Wales as the Lions beat Australia, but it wasn’t until a standout tour of the Pacific Islands in 2017 as the Lions clashed with New Zealand that he caught the eye in a red jersey, retaining his place in the back row for the subsequent Autumn Internationals and not looking back.

Now on 28 caps, Navidi has the experience, ball-carrying presence, defensive work-rate and jackal ability to make an impact against the reigning world champions, and crucially can couple that with the versatility of playing right across the back row in a squad that is expected to be on the smaller side in Lions terms. The time may well have come for the Dreads of Destruction to take their place on the main event of a Lions summer.

He could be joined on the plane by the latest cab off the rank of Cardiff scrum-halves, as Tomos Williams is in the running to be one of the 9 options in Gatland’s squad, battling it out with Ben Youngs, Ali Price, Connor Murray, Jamison Gibson-Park, Gareth Davies and potentially even Rhys Webb.

Of course there have been some truly great scrum-halves to go from the Arms Park to a Lions tour, with Rex Willis, Gareth Edwards, Brynmor Williams and Terry Holmes largely dominating the position from the early 50s through to the late 80s, but we have not seen a Blue and Blacks representative in the position since Rob Howley in 2001.

Tomos is certainly one of the most exciting attacking prospects on the list of potential options this summer, combining excellent service with a speed of play that few can match, and some real x factor moments that can break down a stubborn opposition defence.

While question marks remain over the 26-year-olds game management ability in comparison to his rivals, that game breaking ability might just sway selection his favour from Gatland, the man who introduced him to the international scene back in June 2018, giving him the first of his 22 caps to-date.

The final Cardiff player in serious contention for a spot on the plane comes in the back three, as Josh Adams‘ three tries in three games during the finals rounds of the Six Nations put him squarely at the forefront of minds in the discussion about a well-stocked back three department.

He comes up against experienced guys in the form of Jonny May, Anthony Watson, George North, Liam Williams and Keith Earls, as well as the current headline grabbers of Louis Rees-Zammit and Duhan van der Merwe, but the 25-year old’s record speaks for itself. 17 tries in 32 international games, three tries in each of the last three Six Nations, top scorer at the Rugby World Cup.

Adams is also a seriously underrated defender, and good under the high ball barrage that can be expected from Faf de Klerk at scrum-half, who can cover at full-back and outside centre if required. One of the most consistent wingers in world rugby over the last three years, he stands a great chance of being on the plane to South Africa.

There are also three potential bolters as Gatland could well spring a surprise or two with his squad. The first of those is Cory Hill, who the Lions head coach is known to be a fan of. If we say that Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan are on the plane, then there is potentially a fifth spot in the second row to fill.

Jonny Gray could fill the spot as an out-and-out lock, while Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes both suit the second row and blindside flanker option, but with Gatland seeing Hill as a blindside cover he comes into that equation with a slightly bigger engine if somewhat less physicality. Add in his leadership for what would likely be a role in the midweek side, and he’s an outside chance.

In the back row there could be a fairytale call-up for Ellis Jenkins who has managed to return to on-field action after nearly two-and-a-half years out with a knee injury in the type of form that will certainly get him talked about for Wales selection and might convince the Lions coaches to take a punt on him.

The 27-year-old is one of the most effective breakdown operators to grace the game, but matches that up with a game reading ability that makes him a vital component of the attack and a natural leader on the field. While question marks will remain about how his body would hold up to that level of test match rugby, Jenkins playing against South Africa after a man-of-the-match performance against them as he got injured would be quite something.

Then in the backs the final bolter possibility is Willis Halaholo after the hot stepping centre made a smooth transition to international rugby off the bench for Wales in four of the five games during the Six Nations. With his attacking abilities under no question it was defensively he caught the eye, and with his distribution always improving he is close to the full package.

Centre is a position where Gatland may have a headache or two, with only Robbie Henshaw really catching the eye in recent months, as Jon Davies, Garry Ringrose, Owen Farrell and Henry Slade failed to hit top form, while Manu Tuilagi’s fitness problems continue to drag on.

There’s still water to travel under the bridge before the most hotly debated and anticipated squad announcement in rugby is made, but with the season essentially over for Cardiff Blues there is more than one eye on that day in May.

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