Rounding off the forward pack in the Cardiff squad for the 2021/22 season is a look at our back row, which is going to take some writing!
Once again our flanker stocks are looking incredibly healthy as the Blue and Blacks remain at the art of the Welsh boom of back rowers, with no less than five senior internationals including two in the summer’s Wales squad to face Canada and Argentina, as well as one tourist with the British & Irish Lions.
That of course was Josh Navidi and we start with him as, although his Cardiff appearances are restricted by international commitments these days, he is still the leading player across all three positions with his ball carrying, tackle numbers, jackal ability and ball handling putting him in the conversation as one of the best in the world.
Blue and Blacks fans will be eagerly hoping to see the Lion teaming up with Ellis Jenkins properly for the first time in close to three years, as the 28-year-old gets a full pre-season under his belt and looks fit and firing for the new season. One of the best jackals in the league, as well as criminally underrated for his attacking link play, the flanker will be aiming for a return to the international stage by the end of the campaign.
He will be pushed all the way though by the new kid on the block as James Botham has stepped up in Jenkins’ absence to establish himself as an excellent player at Cardiff and not looking out of place in a Wales jersey either. More of an athlete than his teammate who is as much a threat in the wide channels as he is through the middle, there’s no reason that the 23-year-old can’t become comfortable across the back row in the same way Navidi has.
It’s a similar story of experience versus new international quality on the blindside at the Arms Park where Josh Turnbull just cannot stop churning out man-of-the-match performances. The tackle machine doubles up as the primary ball carrier more often than not, while you are also assured of a turnover a game from the 33-year-old who returned to the international fold over the summer.
Battling all the way for a spot in both the Cardiff matchday 23 and the Wales squad is Shane Lewis-Hughes though as 24-year-old bounces back from a shoulder injury suffered in February to build on a huge two breakout years that culminated in international caps in the autumn of 2020. A ferocious defender, excellent lineout jumper and an improving ball carrier, he has everything Wayne Pivac wants in a 6.
So there’s your five internationals but the quality keeps on coming, with Olly Robinson one of the most reliable flankers in the league when it comes to tackle numbers and turnovers over the ball, but also his carrying game courtesy of the running angles he picks. With no international call-ups to worry about, he’s available all season and a key member of the squad when we enter the crucial days post-Christmas.
Joining him in that section of the back row corps is Will Boyde back from a serious facial injury and looking fit and healthy against Bath last week. Another capable of playing at 6, 7 and 8, the 26-year-old’s smaller stature is deceiving as he packs a serious punch in the carrying game while also being another jackal threat to add to the defensive breakdown game.
The interesting addition to the Cardiff squad this year in particular is the emergence of young Welsh number eights. Alun Lawrence was arguably the player of pre-season as he close to single-handedly created a platform for the Blue and Blacks to play off against Harlequins, as well as offering himself as a serious red zone try scoring threat. If he can maintain that form then a breakout campaign awaits.
Meanwhile Sam Moore still has all the hype surrounding him after a call-up to an Eddie Jones England Six Nations squad as a training member, but continues to be struck down by injuries during his time at the Arms Park. Arriving on the back of a serious knee operation he has been unable to string any more than three games together so far, but a first team and Rags appearance in pre-season give hope that he can finally make his mark as an athletic ball carrier.
The quality doesn’t even stop there in this Cardiff back row corps though as the next generation of flankers and number eights prepare to make their mark, mostly for the Rags this season but hunting for first team minutes where possible.
Gwilym Bradley is a familiar face after a number of outings last season as a physical openside, Wales U20 captain Alex Mann is more on the athletic side and can cover 6 and 7, while Evan Lloyd is a hard carrying number eight ready to make his mark.
With James Ratti also looking very comfortable when called upon at 6 or 8, the options are plenty for Dai Young and his coaching staff. The key will be striking the right balance in terms of asserting the way we want to play, and also dealing with the opposition strengths. If we get that right more often than not, particularly in our carrying, then we give ourselves a great chance to compete this season.