One to Watch: Ioan Evans

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Unfortunately the lack of TV coverage of the Indigo Group Premiership Cup has meant that footage of the Cardiff players tearing it up in the competition has been at a premium.

In a way that is fortunate for me though as if there was an abundance of clips then picking a “One to Watch” feature would be tough. Rhys Anstey has been impressive at the set piece and around the field at lock, Ethan Lloyd is a very sharp and intelligent talent at scrum-half, while Jacob Beetham has been in superb form at full-back.

However, another man in the conversation has strung together more highlight reel clips than any other, and that man is centre Ioan Evans.

The 20-year-old is a great story of personal drive and determination; released by Cardiff after playing for the U18s, went away and worked hard to break into the Pontypridd first team ahead of the coronavirus pandemic and stayed in the thoughts of the Wales U20 staff to win five caps, starting four games, in the U20 Six Nations last summer.

So that is where we’ll start with Evans, turning out in the red jersey of his country at the Arms Park during a campaign which was a struggle in attacking sense, but gave him a lot of work to do defensively and he met the challenge with physicality and an intelligence beyond his years.

In the modern game there are some positions that are increasingly interchangeable in open play. There’s not a huge amount of difference between lock and blindside in a lot of systems, fly-half and inside centre are increasingly worked as a tandem, and wing and full-back work almost as a pendulum due to the introduction of the 50/22.

However, the most bizarre marriage is that of centre and openside flanker, as those in the midfield taken on more and more importance particularly defensively as the openside flankers of the outside channels, leaving the actual opensides to work around the fringes of the breakdown.

Ioan Evans has taken to that like a duck to water as he made four turnovers in five games during the U20 Six Nations. The speed, timing and strength of base is a great indicator that this is a real positive in his game. It’s close to textbook on each occasion and can be a real weapon for Cardiff with our focus on the defensive breakdown.

Beyond that though, the centre has a real eye for a spot blitz from outside centre, so it is no surprise to see him scoring two interception tries for the Rags so far this season.

All too often throughout the professional game there are young outside centres that make the step up and catch the eye as attacking threats, but either slide off the radar or shift out to the wing as they struggle to grasp the nuances of defending the 13 channel.

It’s one of those positions where being in the right position is nigh on impossible; too narrow, too wide, overshot the blitz, stuck on your heels. All are possible by being stood even half-a-metre out of line, but Evans seems to have a natural feel for the defensive side of the game and has looked supremely comfortable in the U20 Six Nations and Premiership.

So with the defensive side of his game coming along well, where is Evans in attack? Well, what underpins his game on both sides of the ball is a ferocious physicality, and that is shown in his carrying game.

While Evans has a natural eye for defensive positioning, he has an equally natural eye for a good line and a gap going forward, but once he does hit contact he continues to push for as many metres gained post-contact as possible, an area of Cardiff’s attacking game we struggle with on too many occasions.

A good leg drive is complemented by some serious upper body strength, and courtesy of not being the tallest player he has an excellent centre of gravity that allows him to stay balanced as he shrugs tackles off to get his side on to the front foot.

With that approach to carrying it is then once again no surprise that Evans has matched his interception tries with tries from carrying the ball.

With the basics of a hard running, defensively solid centre down so far, there’s always an x factor to look for in these “one to watch” pieces, but with Evans I think he has two.

The first is his handling skills, which stem from that upper body strength and balance through contact when carrying allowing him to stay upright and get his hands free. Looking for the offload appears to come naturally and with other players on his wavelength in the Rags squad it has been a potent weapon at times for Steve Law’s men.

The second aspect of Evans’ x factor is his kicking game, which has the extra dimension of being off his left foot, a handy trait as we’ve seen many times from Hallam Amos over the past two years at the Arms Park, providing a nice counter-balance to our overwhelmingly right-footed kickers.

There is room for improvement in terms of consistency and decision making over when to kick, but that wide tactical kicking option in terms of 50/22 capability and as an attacking option in-field, it offers up a lot of interesting opportunities.

In the end, when you put together the pace, the footballing, the handling and the strength, you wind up with a good contender for Rags try of the Indigo Group Premiership Cup so far.

Although with Theo Cabango screeching in from 70 metres it’s a competitive field!

It’s been a whirlwind year for Ioan Evans; going from having no professional contract, to being selected by Wales U20s, to joining the Cardiff Academy, to standing out for the Rags and now could be handed the opportunity to cap it all off by featuring against French and European champions Toulouse at a packed Arms Park on Saturday.

As ever with players at Premiership level it is a good sign when young academy members stand out, but it’s not a pre-requisite for making it at the next level, and with a lot of talented centres in the first team and coming through the system it could soon replace back row as the Blue and Blacks’ area with the most strength in depth.

However, Evans has shown that he can handle every challenge thrown at him so far, and if he gets the start on Saturday with the likes of Willis Halaholo and Josh Adams to support him then you can bet he will take it in his stride.

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