The centres of excellence

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Over the last few years there has been a continuing debate about what the best back row is at Cardiff, with so many superb players still in, and passing through, the squad.

Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, James Botham, Olly Robinson, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Josh Turnbull, Will Boyde, Alun Lawrence, Sam Moore and, after his number eight experiment, James Ratti, have been joined by Sam Warburton, Nick Williams, Samu Manoa and Manoa Vosawai in the battle for the three starting spots each week.

As we approach the 2021/22 campaign though there’s a new area of the field that will be giving Dai Young selection headaches, as the quality available to him in the centres begins to stock up with the development pathway rolling top quality midfielders off the conveyor belt of talent.

Of course for the last few seasons the starting duo has been a relatively unanimous choice with Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo forming one of the most feared centre partnerships in Europe.

Halaholo’s hot stepping feet have earned him plaudits aplenty and seen him force his way into Wales squad reckoning, while Lee-Lo has been one of the best outside centres in the league over at least the last three seasons, rivalling the likes of Bundee Aki and Jon Davies with his ability to beat a man one-on-one and his incredibly reliable defence.

There are changes on the horizon for Young to consider from this September though, all interlinked when it comes to finding the best balance for Cardiff’s midfield.

Firstly, a law change sees the introduction of the 50/22 kick, whereby a team will have the lineout throw if they kick to touch with at least one bounce from their half into the opposition 22. It’s something that will be giving defence coaches nightmares as they try to run a system that gives them enough numbers in the defensive line and to cover the back field.

That may lead Young to have a look at a second kicking option in the back line, with Ben Thomas at 12 seemingly the best option to fill that role as a natural footballer who came through as a fly-half, has slotted in at full-back, but played the majority of his senior rugby at inside centre.

During the Rainbow Cup there was encouraging evidence that Thomas and Jarrod Evans can form a very effective dual playmaker partnership at 10 and 12, and as their decision making only gets better their selection of run, pass or, importantly now, kick, can see us pull apart defences.

The added dimension to that is, as we know from his stint, returning attack coach Matt Sherratt is a big fan of the dual playmaker. With young fly-half Luke Scully having had experience at inside centre for Worcester’s A side during his time there, there are options at his disposal.

If Thomas starts at 12 then what of Willis Halaholo? Well this is the second change that could be on the horizon as The Hot Stepper could well have his eyes set on the 13 jersey at international level. In order to grab that with both hands he will need to play there at least semi-regularly for Cardiff.

The 31-year-old won a Super Rugby title with the Hurricanes while playing outside centre, but has played almost exclusively at inside centre since arriving in Wales. However, a run of games at 13 in the Rainbow Cup led into two starts there for the national team over the summer where he showed off his defensive ability and, crucially, found space to be even more of an attacking threat.

With the way the Blue and Blacks attacked at the back end of last season, the threat of Halaholo running short off the shoulder of a dual playmaker 10/12, attacking space on the outside of his opposite man or using his footwork one-on-one is frightening, as well as creating space for the back three to utilise.

So the knock-on effect is what of Rey Lee-Lo? Well this is the third change as although the Samoan remains one of the best players in the league, he is 34 now, turning 35 in February. He’s showing no signs of slowing down, but he’s not going to be around forever, and by starting to manage his game time now then it potentially extends his career for the next few years.

Lee-Lo is still undoubtedly the go-to man for the big games, but the suggestion might be that there’s not necessarily a need for him to play week-in, week-out. We saw him play a lot during the Pro14 season last year, but then barely feature in the Rainbow Cup due to injury, while there also has to be an eye on the future.

This brings me on to the fourth and final change that Dai Young to consider, and it’s a gradual changing of the guard. Max Llewellyn, Mason Grady, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and even Owen Lane as he moves in off the wing will all have an eye on match minutes in midfield this coming campaign.

Particularly Llewellyn as he turns 22 and needs a run of injury free games to really take his development to the next level, and Grady as a generational talent, should be appearing in the first team where possible, with potentially some brave selection decisions required but the rewards are great as we properly manage their transition into the first team.

It’s certainly not a set of decisions that makes me envy the job of Young as he prepares for the 2021/22 season, but there is certainly an excitement over the options at his disposal. If he gets it right more often than not then there’s a huge potential for Cardiff to achieve something this year.

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