Five things to watch for in pre-season

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Cardiff Rugby get pre-season underway this weekend as Dai Young’s side travel to Harlequins to meet the reigning Gallagher Premiership champions at the Twickenham Stoop, 3pm kick-off on Saturday.

The Blue and Blacks haven’t taken the field since the 5th June, when Zebre were beaten in the final game of the Rainbow Cup at the Arms Park, but are now ready to get going again after a full pre-season training block under Director of Rugby Young, along with returning Attack Coach Matt Sherratt and new High Performance Coordinator Trystan Bevan.

After this Saturday’s game we finish the warm-ups for the United Rugby Championship by welcoming Bath to the Welsh capital, so I’ve had a look at few aspects of the Cardiff performances to keep an eye on ahead of the 2021/22 campaign.

Young players stepping up

The likelihood is that this weekend’s game against Harlequins will not include any players involved in Wales’ summer campaign against Canada and Argentina, while British and Irish Lions Josh Navidi and Josh Adams will definitely be missing.

As a result the first game will be a chance for the wider squad to impress Young and his coaching staff, with my hope being that Dai will turn to some of his talented youngsters from the start. The likes of Iestyn Harris, Will Davies-King, Teddy Williams, Gwilym Bradley, Jamie Hill and Ellis Bevan, Luke Scully, Max Llewellyn, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Mason Grady would all benefit from a good amount of minutes.

While there are more senior squad players who could step in with the internationals away, the ideal situation is that by the end of the upcoming season the majority of those players listed are definitely third, and maybe even second, choice options in their respective positions. That move to overhaul the wider squad starts this weekend.

The fitness of returning players

Cardiff finished the Rainbow Cup with a fairly depleted squad as a number of short-term injuries joined a group of players that missed the entirety of the second half of the campaign. Some did return, with Rey Lee-Lo coming off the bench against Zebre and Hallam Amos playing for Wales, but the status of a number are unknown.

Shane Lewis-Hughes hasn’t played since February due to a shoulder injury, Ellis Jenkins missed the Rainbow Cup with leg muscle issues after his return from the lengthy knee injury, Will Boyde hasn’t played in 2021 due to a facial fracture, Luke Scully suffered a season ending leg injury while on-loan at Cornish Pirates, Max Llewellyn picked up an ankle knock during the Rainbow Cup, Mason Grady suffered a knee injury in March, Garyn Smith damaged his ACL in January and Aled Summerhill broke his wrist on the final day of the Pro14 season.

Perhaps the biggest fitness question waiting to be answered though is what sort of shape Sam Moore is in as we begin his second season at the Arms Park. The number eight only appeared six times, starting twice, between the return of rugby post-lockdown and the end of last season as he was troubled with head and knee injuries. It would be a big boost if he looks sharp across the next two weeks.

Signs of set piece improvement

One of the biggest hopes for the second Dai Young era at Cardiff is that the former tighthead prop, along with Duane Goodfield and T Rhys Thomas, can really get to grips with the Blue and Blacks set piece, especially the maul where we are noticeably weak in terms of attacking and particularly defensively.

A strong driving maul is one of the staples required to be competitive in the Gallagher Premiership, so Harlequins and Bath will offer stern tests on that front, giving us a great chance to test ourselves before facing a typically strong Irish side in the URC round one, before travelling to Ospreys with their always strong pack and then facing two South African sides who prize themselves on their forwards power.

Of course we are a generally lighter pack at Cardiff, but maul defence is as much about technique as anything, so Young having had a pre-season to improve that technique and the tactical side of our maul defence will hopefully produce some results during the next two games.

The continuation of positional changes

One of the major talking points from the Rainbow Cup from a Cardiff perspective was how Young took the opportunity to look at some players in alternative positions. They were certainly experimental, but gave cause for great optimism as squad members stepped up to new challenges, improving the strength in depth we have at the Arms Park along the away.

It will be interesting to see where James Ratti slots in having impressed at number eight, but with Cory Hill departing from the second row, while whether Ben Thomas plays at 12 or 15 should he be available against Bath should give an indication of what to expect from the Blue and Blacks attack under Matt Sherratt this season.

There are also some other positional changes that could happen too, with Shane Lewis-Hughes potentially deployed in the second row, and Aled Summerhill an option at outside centre or full-back. It may depend on whether Young sees the upcoming campaign as more of a transitional one, or whether he’s aiming for success from the off.

Has pre-season conditioning given our attack legs

I wrote a few weeks ago about how Trystan Bevan would be a key man for Cardiff this season in his role as High Performance Coordinator as, although the attacking game gave cause for plenty of optimism during the Rainbow Cup, it was ultimately our downfall at times too as the high tempo style of play caused us to run out of energy after 30 minutes and let the opposition back into the game.

Tired defending led to soft tries being conceded and some long spells of ill-discipline, but if we have got out fitness levels up to a point in pre-season where we can sustain the high tempo until half-time, recover to go again in the first 15 or 20 after half-time and then bring replacements on to sustain that tempo and manage what is hopefully a lead going into the final quarter, then we stand a great chance of being competitive.

The hope is that against Harlequins and Bath we see signs of that conditioning being altered to suit the new game plan, particularly when it comes to avoiding spells of ill-discipline which too often cost us over the course of last season.

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