The New Boys: Rhys Priestland

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Having covered the half backs in the Team Report it is now time to take a closer look at the second new Cardiff signing of the summer as Rhys Priestland returns to Wales to play in the capital.

His story until about 2015 is a well-known one in the country as he came through the Scarlets Academy playing for Carmarthen Quins, made the step up to the first team in Llanelli and took over from Stephen Jones first at club level and then internationally, making his debut in 2011.

Priestland would go on to appear in the Rugby World Cup that year and then start in the 10 jersey in every game as Wales won the Grand Slam in 2012, also playing at the 2015 World Cup, although by then Dan Biggar had emerged and the ever egregious national team supporters continued to single out the man from Camarthenshire for undue criticism.

From that point on he escapes the radar of the six-week a year fan, joining Bath in 2015 and becoming a cult hero at The Rec where he played 120 times in all competitions, scoring 893 points and breaking the record for the most successful consecutive goal kicks with 36-in-a-row during the last Gallagher Premiership season.

The question is, at 34-years-old, what sort of player are Cardiff getting as he returns over the Severn Bridge? Well, on the basis of this try against Sale earlier this year, he still has a decent turn of pace!

Since the start of the 2019/20 season, Priestland has appeared in 38 of Bath’s 44 Gallagher Premiership games, starting 36 of those, and were it not for a slight hamstring problem during April he would have been close to a 100% appearance rate.

Of those 36 games he has gone the full 80 minutes in 24, proving not only that he still has the legs to play at the highest level, but also just how crucial he was to Bath right to the end of his spell at the club, dispelling any myths that he’s over the hill or just after a last pay check.

Of course the feeling among a lot of Cardiff fans, me included, is that Priestland’s move will be a big boost for our tactical kicking and game management, an area of our performances in recent times that has let us down at crucial moments. You only have to recall the last 10 minutes against a 14-man London Irish back in April to see the weakness.

Looking at that first clip and it’s not even a particularly well executed kick, but the distance and height off Priestland’s right foot cause all sorts of problems for Tyrone Green in the Harlequins back field and, crucially, allows time for the Bath chasers to get up the field and set up just outside the 22, giving their side field position and forcing the opposition to play from deep.

The attacking kicks similarly keep the opposition pinned back and create try scoring opportunities. Spotting the Quins winger stepping up into the defensive line, he can nudge the ball into the corner and if a good bounce is forthcoming it can sit up for the chasers, but at worst the opposition do what they do just after the end of the clip and rush a kick into touch inside their own 22.

Of course Priestland is also a world class goal kicker, from anywhere inside the opposition half and even just inside his own half, but most interestingly will be how he gets the attack moving under Dai Young and Matt Sherratt’s attempts to play at a high-tempo and out-maneouvre the opponents, rather than running straight through them.

While he doesn’t have the jinking ability of a Jarrod Evans, his passing range is second-to-none, targeting space on the edges of the defence and allowing outside backs to run on to the ball.

Three well-picked and executed passes that each result in line breaks and even getting the ball over the try line. It’s not difficult to picture a Rey Lee-Lo, Matthew Morgan or Josh Adams making outside breaks off the back of Priestland releasing them with a long pass from fly-half.

More than that though he understands how to manipulate the defence to create the space when it’s not immediately available, avoiding trying to produce a miracle pass in favour of drawing the defence in and allowing those in the midfield to either break or have the option of playing into space that he is created out wide.

The temptation was no doubt there for Priestland to pull the trigger on the long pass but by holding back and utilising his inside centre he teases the outside defender up out of the line and his 12 then has a less risky pass for a higher reward into more space.

That little double-pump is what really pulls the defence in and gives the fly-half the extra time to assess what is outside him and put the ball where it can hurt the opposition. Picture the next few clips with either Willis Halaholo and Max Llewellyn at inside centre, or Adams, Owen Lane or Aled Summerhill off the blindside wing working across, as running of Priestland’s shoulder and you can see where he slots seamlessly into the Cardiff attack.

Although Priestland is undoubtedly in the twilight of his career, he still has a lot to offer Cardiff over the next two or three years with his vision, passing and kicking game at the heart of the evolution of our attacking game plan.

Working together with Jarrod Evans will be beneficial for both players, and as the younger man hopefully kicks on for numerous international caps, the elder statesman will have a hugely key role to play during the weekends when Jarrod is away with Wales or resting up, as well as winning games in the final quarter when he’s on the bench.

A potentially excellent bit of business from the Blue and Blacks, and a warm welcome back to Wales from supporters who know rugby exists outside of February and March awaits Rhys Priestland.

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