The semi-pro stars to watch as the Rags prepare title defence

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Cardiff RFC get the pre-season campaign underway this weekend as National 2 East, the fourth tier of English rugby, side Henley Hawks arrive at the Arms Park for a 2pm kick-off on Saturday.

Steve Law’s men come into the season as reigning Indigo Group Premiership champions having leapfrogged Newport with a bonus point win in the final game of 2021/22 to lift the trophy that was snatched out of one hand when covid struck two years previously.

There have been a number of changes to the semi-professional core of the squad over the summer though. The experience of Thomas Davies (Newport), Evan Yardley (Bridgend), Jack Maynard (Llandovery) and Ryan Edwards (Bridgend) have all moved on to pastures new, as have young talent Llyr Green (Llandovery), Alex Everett (Cornish Pirates) and Daf Smith (Newport).

Barney Nightingale is also missing from the squad after suffering a serious facial injury early last season which has prevented his return to the sport.

In their place Spot and the coaching staff have gone out and recruited 10 new semi-professional players, as well as welcoming Scott Andrews to the fold as a player/coach, each of whom I have quickly detailed in a Twitter thread posted on Monday.

So with the squad in place I’ve had a look at which of the semi-professional spine of the squad will be key if the Blue and Blacks are going to repeat, or even build on, the success of last season as the Premiership returns to a season-long double round-robin format.

Starting up front and the return of Joey Tomlinson is undoubtedly the story of the summer from a Rags perspective as the former club captain is back in South Wales after a spell in Canada. The hooker will compete with the excellent Alun Rees as well as exciting talent Efan Daniel and a re-training option as Evan Lloyd switches from the back row.

As well as on-the-field though he will be a major contributor off it as a leader in the squad helping to foster the culture that has been so strong over the last few years, and being there to develop the likes of Daniel, Lloyd and young players in other positions as they continue their journey through the pathway.

One of the truly new faces and one-to-watch from a potential perspective is Freddie Barnes who joins having won England Counties U18 honours before going straight into the Cardiff University BUCS Super Rugby side and remaining there throughout his three years of studies.

Listed in some places as being 6ft4 and weighing over 132kg there’s no doubt that anyone who has watched him play in the University competition over the last few years has noticed his sheer size, which translates into him being a destructive scrummager and ball carrier. Working regularly with Scott Andrews could well see the 23-year-old take his game to the next level.

No run through of key Rags players would be complete without Morgan Allen who has been consistently one of the league’s best players since arriving in 2018. A talismanic captain in the way he leads by example on the field, he is a physical ball carrier and defensive leader who is arguably the first name on the teamsheet week-in, week-out.

Potentially joining Allen in the back row this season will be Ellis Thomas who joins from Llanelli with the task of filling the number six jersey vacated by Alex Everett’s summer move to Cornish Pirates. It won’t be easy to fill those boots as Everett’s dynamic ball carrying was a real asset, spawning nine tries in 42 games, but Thomas offers something different.

A bigger man physically he will add some serious power to that back row, with his ball carrying where he was often used as the primary first phase carrier at Parc y Scarlets, in defence with the choke tackle which is so key to Cardiff’s defensive system, and in the set piece packing down in the scrum. Up against our bogey sides like Newport, Aberavon and Carmarthen, and their big packs, he could well be an asset.

Into the backs and Tom Habberfield returns to the playing squad as a key man this season having missed the majority of last year, making just one appearance due to injury. A vastly experienced figure having made over 130 appearances for the Ospreys before signing with the Rags, he takes on particular importance this season as Ben Burnell turns out for the side.

The young fly-half is clearly a talented player, but having Habberfield at 9 guiding him through the game will be extremely beneficial for his development and the fortunes of the side this season. In a similar vein, Arron Pinches will have a key role in the centres having joined from Merthyr where he is the only senior semi-pro squad member outside of the half-backs.

With Burnell on the inside at 10, the likes of Harrison James, Ioan Evans and Ryan Wilkins joining him in midfield and young semi-pros recently out of the professional game like Joe Goodchild, Dewi Cross and George Gasson on the wings, Pinches at, I believe, 34 years old will be the leader of that backline, particularly defensively.

Once again the Rags will form an important part of the development pathway for Academy players, young professionals and for those just out of the professional game, but a key element of that will be competitiveness and a winning culture, where the experienced semi-professionals come to the fore on and off the field.

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