Thomas’ time for change to unlock Cardiff’s attacking potential

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When it comes to exciting home-grown talent there have been few better prospects come through the system at the Arms Park than Ben Thomas in recent years, with the utility back enjoying a meteoric rise into the first team.

Looking at the stats the Cardiff man has played for Cardiff Schools, as well as regionally at U16 and U18 level, he’s captained the Cardiff & Vale College 1st XV, won international honours at U18 and U20, lifted the Welsh Cup with Cardiff RFC, played 39 times for the Blue and Blacks 1st XV and won two senior Wales caps, all by the age of 23.

It’s an incredible list of achievements for someone who is still very much a young player and continuing to learn their trade at the senior professional level, but as Thomas now becomes a bona fide first 23 option the question lingers about where he fits into this Cardiff side under Dai Young.

Having played the majority of his age grade rugby as a fly-half he has featured almost exclusively as an inside centre in the senior game, first with the Rags and then into the first team, making 20 of his 24 United Rugby Championship or European starts in the 12 jersey, largely only covering fly-half when Jarrod Evans and Rhys Priestland are unavailable.

Over the last few weeks though I’ve developed the nagging feeling that an Evans/Thomas combo at 10 and 12 just is not working for Cardiff’s attack. It’s a little difficult to put a finger on exactly why that is, but it seems to be a mixture of the personnel and the shape of the attack in general.

Now that’s not to say that the personnel are playing poorly or in need of criticising, it’s more of a case to my eye that Evans and Thomas see the game in too similar of a way and end up in similar areas of the field, negating that double playmaker set up and narrowing the Blue and Blacks attack, placing a lot of emphasis on the individual ability of the outside centre to fashion any line breaks.

Then shape-wise the inside centre in a Matt Sherratt attack has a key role as a carrier/dummy runner in a lot of pre-called moves, with Thomas a capable carrier but not on the level of some other contenders for the 12 jersey in the squad, while going into contact once again negates the double playmaker setup.

With Willis Halaholo ruled out for the season it allows the likes of Max Llewellyn to step in at inside centre, or perhaps Rey Lee-Lo shifts inside and allows Mason Grady or Owen Lane to wear 13 to add some more dynamism to the midfield, but the question remains around Ben Thomas.

Well, for me the answer is full-back. It’s a position he tried out briefly during that random Rainbow Cup campaign last season and where he looked pretty comfortable, and it allows Cardiff to continue to run the dual playmaker system and suits the attacking shape better, a throwback to the Matt Sherratt style that saw us head to Bilbao in 2018 with Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe working together.

Thomas would have more opportunity to scan the defence and step into the attacking line where he can best impact the game, he can operate in slightly wider channels so there’s no colliding with Evans and it gets the ball to the edge quicker, and it allows two strike runners in midfield to hold the inside defence. Meanwhile there’s a good kicking option in the back field and he has the game intelligence to pick up the defensive positioning relatively quickly.

It also solves a problem for Cardiff with Hallam Amos retiring at the end of the season and Matthew Morgan having never really made the position his own, and would develop a consistency in selection with Jacob Beetham also emerging at full-back having played at fly-half before stepping up to senior rugby, retaining the dual playmaker system at 10 and 15 throughout the season.

For this weekend’s game against Scarlets it would be a huge call from Dai Young to switch Thomas to full-back, with chances of qualifying for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup firmly on the line, but it could be a masterstroke in terms of unlocking our full attacking potential. Go big or go home!

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