Rewind to the summer of 2017 and, although there was certainly less coronavirus around, Cardiff Rugby land was pretty similar to now; mid-table finishes aplenty, a forwards oriented coach starting to get us playing some good stuff, still no sign of a new Arms Park lease, and our star second row had just abruptly left the club.
In fact, Franco van der Merwe hadn’t even actually arrived in Cardiff. The South African lock had signed from Ulster but a sudden tightening of the belt financially had left us searching for a way out and when London Irish came in with a contract offer he was off down the M4 to Reading, where he would make 56 appearances in all competitions over three years and captain the side for a season.
He was supposed to be the missing piece of the jigsaw, a second row who could fill a gap that hadn’t been adequately dealt with since the likes of Paul Tito, Bradley Davies and Deiniol Jones had left at the end of Dai Young’s first spell at the club, adding grunt and experience to the engine room.
Instead though the gap continued, and the current Cardiff squad is looking at something similar as Cory Hill heads off to Japan this summer.
Hill was the major signing of last summer, returning to the club after seven years away at Moseley, briefly, and then the Dragons. A Wales international, a proven leader and some extra muscle for that engine room, he proved his worth even in just 11 appearances during the 2020/21 campaign, particularly in the 29-20 home win over Scarlets where he was outstanding.
Now though he’s heading out the door, for totally understandable reasons I should add, and as part of the ‘national 38’ that bring extra payments from the Welsh Rugby Union with them, Cardiff are unlikely to be able to recruit to fill the gap once again.
Back in 2017 though this presented an opportunity, and it was taken with both hands by a young Academy graduate by the name of Seb Davies.
The 21-year-old had been a key part of the Wales U20 squad for two years, caught the eye while making European Challenge Cup and Guinness Pro12 debuts of the bench during the 2016/17 campaign, and even made his Wales debut that summer during the British and Irish Lions tour.
With van der Merwe no longer joining Cardiff it was Davies’ time to shine, and shine he did. 10 months and 17 league and European starts later he was a Challenge Cup winner and had added two more international caps to his tally, including a Six Nations debut, with a tour of Argentina around the corner.
So who is going to be 2021’s Seb Davies? Well there’s certainly opportunity for Matthew Screech, Ben Murphy and James Ratti to step up, but the one to watch could well be young Teddy Williams who is at the age where it’s time to start getting serious about senior professional rugby prospects.
The 20-year-old has had his fair share of setbacks already in his short career. Having made a strong impression as part of the 2019 Wales U20 squad he was a regular for Cardiff RFC during the first half of the 19/20 campaign, but injury struck just before Christmas ruling him out of his second and final year at U20 level.
That injury was then compounded by the coronavirus pandemic which has restricted his game time significantly over the last 18 months, but Williams has still managed to not look out of place as he made two Guinness Pro14 appearances, two Cardiff A appearances, and two Rainbow Cup appearances, bagging a try against the Dragons.
Now the time has come for him to kick on with hopefully an injury free run though, and the departure of Hill could well be the perfect opportunity for that to happen.
I wouldn’t expect him to immediately take a spot in the first team, with Seb Davies, Rory Thornton and Josh Turnbull, as well as the aforementioned Screech, Murphy and Ratti, all slotting into the pecking order, so starting the season with a run of games for the Rags will be ideal.
Once we get into the heart of the season during January and February though, where injuries and international call-ups hit, the game time should be there for Williams to put his hand up for greater involvement, and I wouldn’t bet against him finishing the season as a real contender for a first choice spot.
So as Hill’s door closes, another one opens, and that door could well be Teddy Williams’.