Hooker battle sets the tone for internal competition driving standards

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A story within a story at the Arms Park this season will be how Cardiff’s players compete against each other for spots in matchday 23s, and contracts next summer, while competing with other United Rugby Championship clubs for a place in the play-offs.

In an interview with The Rugby Paper a few weeks ago, Club President Peter Thomas noted that the senior squad was currently around the 54-man mark but that it was likely to drop to around 45-men by the start of the 2022/23 season.

When you look across the squad, the presence of three very similar style of hookers in the senior squad stands out as an area where Dai Young and the club’s senior management could be looking at making a change, as we finally get around to replacing Matthew Rees after Smiler’s retirement in the summer of 2019.

Rees was an excellent lineout thrower and a willing worker around the field, but most importantly he was a superb scrummager, something which often gets overlooked in the role of the hooker. Players like Dane Coles or Luke Cowan-Dickie will get plenty of headlines with their viral clips of open field play, but the reason that the likes of Bongi Mbonambi or Guilhelm Guirado are, or were, so crucial to their national teams is because of the work they do in the tight.

What we currently have at Cardiff, in the form of Kris Dacey, Liam Belcher and Kirby Myhill are three good quality mobile hookers. Their carrying stats are often very good, they post tackle numbers in the top five of the team, and they attend a high number of breakdowns, but they are not the strongest when it comes to scrummaging or adding power around the field.

If I was in charge of recruitment at the Arms Park next summer a hooker that fit the profile of a new-age Matthew Rees would be second only to a talismanic number eight, but even putting that to one side for a moment, the fact the Dacey, Belcher and Myhill are so similar playing-wise should drive competition for the number two jersey throughout the upcoming campaign.

When all are fit it purely comes down to form when selecting someone to wear the number two and number 16 jerseys, so each will have to be at their best when they get their opportunity if they are willing and ready to fight for as many match minutes as possible this season.

All too often we see the United Rugby Championship teams who perform the best during a campaign being those who have the best strength in depth, so creating internal competition for game time and contracts can lead to the Blue and Blacks having a squad that breaks the constant mediocrity of mid-table finishes and pushes on for the play-offs.

With a new coaching team at the helm to impress and the threat of squad slimming next summer on top of that competition for minutes, the battle for the number two jersey should be more intense than ever. It will then be up to the players to rise to that challenge, channel the pressure in the right way and ensure the club as a whole benefits from it as well as them as individuals.

If this can be achieved at hooker, where Dacey and Myhill in particular are senior players in the squad, and replicated across other positions, then it stands Cardiff in good stead to push on during the 2021/22 season.

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