Once again the Cardiff Rugby Life’s Team Report is back looking at the Cardiff squad for the 2020/21 season by position group ahead of the United Rugby Championship campaign getting underway against Connacht next week.
I start up front with the big boys, looking at the props and hookers which is a group that has been very settled over the last few years and now begins to come of age as players graduate from future prospects to serious talent towards the peak years of their careers.
Beginning with the number one jersey and a battle that should rage throughout the season at the Arms Park, and will hopefully make the step up to the international stage at some point, as Corey Domachowski and Rhys Carre go head-to-head for the starting spot.
Domachowski was the man who dominated the position last season having bounced back from a disappointing 2018/19 season, and improved on a cautiously optimistic 2019/20 season, to show off a scrummaging and carrying power that set him apart and should have resulted in a Wales call-up come the end of the year.
Carre’s season was interrupted by international call-ups and being parachuted in and out of Wales matchday 23s, but after missing out on the summer squad he has had a full pre-season to get into good shape. If his performance against Bath is anything to go by he looks ready and raring to go for a big season as he turns 23 and begins to mature as a prop at the senior professional level.
Behind them is the evergreen Rhys Gill who prepares to enter his 16th season as a professional rugby player as he nears his 35th birthday. An eye catching showing against Harlequins showed he still has the legs and hunger to play at the top level, and when it comes to depths of the season when injuries and international call-ups strike, turning to a man with his experience could be a season-saver.
Starting the year on loan at Glasgow, but no doubt returning to play a key role when turned to later in the campaign, Brad Thyer only played nine times in all competitions last year but continues to be a reliable scrummager and a willing carrier in open play. All too often we see the best sides in the league having the best squads, and having Thyer as a squad player does improve our strength in depth.
Then hoping to get an opportunity in the first team after starting the season with the Rags is Theo Bevacqua, who graduated the Wales U20s set up over the summer having won nine caps in two years. A solid scrummager and a particularly impressive jackal, the 20-year-old will mostly turn out in the Premiership this season but will no doubt make an impression should he be called upon by Dai Young.
It’s an interesting state of affairs in the number two jersey as there are three players battling for the starting spot, all of whom have pretty similar attributes.
Kris Dacey is the senior member of the hooking corps going into the campaign at 32 years old and with 174 appearances under his belt. A tough 2019/20 season pre-pandemic saw him struggle with injury and lose his place in the starting XV, but 15 appearances in all competitions last year saw him back close to his best with his attacking instincts adding three tries to his overall tally of 29.
Liam Belcher was the main beneficiary of Dacey’s injury problems, bouncing back from being released by Cardiff in the summer of 2017 to start 11 times before the pandemic hit, with his speed and surprising level of power setting him apart in open play.
Meanwhile Kirby Myhill continues to be beset by injuries, again missing a large part of the middle of last season. However, when he is fit he is much like a Dacey or a Belcher as a mobile hooker who carries well and covers a lot of ground. The 29-year-old has also established himself as a leader in the squad over recent months, captaining the first team on a number of occasions.
Hoping to break the mould of Dacey, Belcher and Myhill is Iestyn Harris, a more physical hooker who provides a stronger scrummaging base and greater power around the field after bouncing back from a serious knee injury that ruled him out of the majority of the 2018/19 campaign. Featuring for the Rags early in the season should give him a platform to improve from by the end of the campaign.
Hoping to make good on a lot of potential this season is Dillon Lewis in the number three jersey, as the 25-year-old overcomes a back problem to make a statement this year. After dropping out of international favour during the Six Nations, Lewis put in some consistently quality performances for Cardiff in the second half of the campaign, and although the summer didn’t go quite as well as he would have hoped, a big few weeks to start this season should put him right back in Wales contention.
Challenging for that starting spot once again will be Dmitri Arhip as he begins his ninth season in Wales and his fourth at the Arms Park. Since arriving in the summer of 2018 the Moldovan has been part of a scrummaging revolution at the club, and at 32 years old is showing no signs of slowing down having appeared in 14 of 16 league games last season, starting 12.
Providing the experienced back up is Scott Andrews who, like Gill on the loosehead, is the go-to man during the depths of the season when injuries and international call-ups strike and a steady hand is needed. As he prepares to enter the 14 season of his senior career at 32 years old, the Welshman continues to be the ultimate clubman with his on-field contributions and assistance in coaching the Academy and age grade sides.
Looking to have a breakout season is new father Keiron Assiratti, who turned 24 years old over the summer and will be hoping to improve on recent campaigns which have seen him play a bit-part role in the first team. Undoubtedly a powerful player, as he matures into a senior prop Assiratti will need to display the consistent technique required to scrummage at the top level.
Perhaps leaping him in the pecking order though is Will Davies-King who enjoyed some valuable minutes during the Rainbow Cup at the back end of last season and went on to start against Harlequins in pre-season. A relatively late entrant to the professional game, having started at Chepstow RFC and not being picked up until playing at Cardiff Met RFC, at 6’4″ and 125kg he is a sizeable athlete and at 23 years old now needs game time to kick on.
All-in-all there’s plenty of strength in depth around the front row, and a really good mix of quality starters, experienced back ups and talented youngsters looking to make an impression. The development of Davies-King will be particularly interesting to keep an eye on this season, as well as the reaction of Carre to losing his starting place to Domachowski.
If we are to kick on towards qualifying for the play-offs then internal competition will be key, but specifically how the players react to it. Create the right environment that fosters a setting that sees the players drive each other on and our front row corps should be very competitive this season.