The Cardiff RFC squad will once again be supplemented by a number of Cardiff Academy players this season as the Rags balances a developmental role with being competitive in the Indigo Group Premiership.
With Academy Manager Gruff Rees in the Director of Rugby role working alongside Head Coach Steve Law there is a desire to get talented youngsters game time throughout the season alongside the core semi-professional squad in order to offer a stepping stone from age grade rugby into the first team at the Arms Park.
That approach, even before it was set in stone, has seen the likes of James Botham, Ben Thomas and Max Llewellyn make their mark in Dai Young’s squad, while last season Theo Cabango used the Rags as a springboard on to being a breakout star in the United Rugby Championship, with Jacob Beetham undoubtedly just behind.
Ahead of the new season I’ve had a look at five Academy members in particular who could catch the eye in the Premiership, starting up front where Rhys Barratt will turn out regularly for Cardiff having largely featured for Cardiff Met in BUCS Super Rugby alongside winning seven caps for Wales U20.
The 20-year-old is cut from a similar mould as that of Rhys Carre as a physically imposing prop with a noticeable carrying game and some raw power at scrum time, but with a better engine than Carre had at the same age. That scrummaging will be tested this season, but with Marc Thomas and Scott Andrews to work with the mentors are there if he’s ready to learn.
Also in the front row is a particular intriguing story ahead of the new season as Evan Lloyd makes the switch from back rower to hooker after a frustrating campaign of injury last time out. It’s a path we know all about at the Arms Park with Kris Dacey, Kirby Myhill and Liam Belcher on the books all converted back rowers themselves.
For a good few years now it’s been an achilles heel for Cardiff with a lack of scrummaging power in the number two jersey since Matthew Rees retired, but Lloyd has something different at 6’1″ and around 100kgs, he’s got size on his side. He’s a proven ball carrier, but if his scrummaging comes along then a serious comparison could be made with Dewi Lake.
Packing down behind them will be Rhys Anstey, a lock who enjoyed a very solid first full season of senior rugby last season bouncing back from missing out on national U20 honours and focusing on putting on some bulk and positively impacting games around the field.
I don’t have any reliable stats for his size, nor am I very good at guessing that sort of thing, but the 20-year-old is an imposing figure, and at this level is a physical presence. The next concentration is becoming a technician, and up against the organised packs of Aberavon, Newport and Carmarthen specifically there is a challenge ahead for Anstey to dominate at lineout and maul time.
Into the back row and a player on the younger side, but who has already had and will continue to have buzz around him, is Mackenzie Martin, a former U16 level prop who has made the switch into the back row and played for Wales U20 over the summer despite still being an U18 and playing college rugby last season.
Comfortable at 6 and increasingly learning his trade at 8, the Ely lad has intangibles around size and strength that cannot be learned, and is already taking huge strides forward from the raw talent that was seen playing for Cardiff U18 in 2021. Martin had a brief taste of this level last season but will now see a lot more as he takes the next steps in his career, still eligible for the U20s, and leaning from the likes of Morgan Allen as he develops that rugby IQ.
The final player and only back on the list is perhaps less of a surprise as those who listened to the Cardiff Rugby Life Podcast and who have followed my social media for a while know I have been a fan of Cameron Winnett for a few years now, and he’s started to show the talent he has with Wales U20s, the Rags and on his first team outings last season.
I don’t hide my admiration of Stuart Hogg as a full-back and I see similarities in Winnett, not just in his running style, but in his attack-minded play, his confidence when in possession, and his uncanny ability to step past the first defender every time.
With Jacob Beetham now unlikely to feature much, if at all, for the Rags it is all eyes on the 19-year-old as he takes control of the 15 jersey, and how he starts to dictate games with his skill execution and decision making. Get that to a consistently high level and the ceiling is high for a young man with the ability and mentality that Winnett has displayed so far in his career.
It’s a seriously exciting time for the Rags, with these five players just scraping the surface of the talent in the Academy. Adam Williams, Gwilym Evans, Alex Mann, Ethan Lloyd, Ryan Wilkins and Ioan Evans are all likely to feature regularly and are high potential players, so get down to the Arms Park and support the boys as they look to defend their Premiership title.