The Team Report is back for 2022/23 as Cardiff prepare for a new season with focus less on the results and more on the individual performances of older players fighting for their futures and young players vying to prove they are the future.
After the implosion that was the second half of the last campaign the Blue and Blacks have a huge hill to climb in order to get back into contention for the United Rugby Championship play-offs, but with a large number of covid extended contracts coming to an end next summer there are contracts to be played for at the Arms Park.
Dai Young will be itching to properly re-shape the squad going into 2023/24 after the club has had almost six years of a very similar looking playing staff, so let’s have a look at the Cardiff squad that will take the field looking to catch the eye in this upcoming season.
We start up front and in the number one jersey where the loosehead props are led by Rhys Carre off the back of his best season yet in a Blue and Black jersey. There’s often been a fair bit of negative press that has followed the Big Red Machine, with many, particularly on social media, critical that he doesn’t seem to use his big frame effectively enough for their liking at club or country level.
However, that narrative forgets that Carre has only just turned 24 because he’s been on the club scene for four years already and the national scene for three. Only know is he starting to mature as a top level and international prop, and that’s what we saw last season as his performances went to another level where he was unlucky not to feature more for Wales over the summer due to the issues on the tighthead.
Depth-wise at loosehead Cardiff are in good shape, with Corey Domachowski there to push Carre all the way for the one jersey as he continues to linger around the cusp of an international call-up in a particularly competitive position for Wales, but it is the third spot on the depth chart that will be most interesting at the Arms Park.
As things stand the experienced option is Brad Thyer, the 29-year-old just eight appearances away from the hundred club, but he has made just 14 times with only five starts since rugby returned after the first covid lockdown in mid-2020, plus a loan spell at Glasgow early last season.
Vying to jump him are the two most recent first choice Wales U20 looseheads with Theo Bevacqua, the rock solid scrummager who struggled for fitness last season but is an almost ready made first team option when fit, and Rhys Barratt, a prop in a similar mould to Carre who catches the eye as a physical ball carrier with an engine to get around the park. If either can maintain their fitness and get a sniff of an opportunity then there is potential for them to make their mark in the first team.
On to hooker and it’s a similar situation to the last two years in the number two jersey where the three most senior first team options are all in a similar mould.
Kris Dacey, Kirby Myhill and Liam Belcher are all converted back rowers who have made incredibly athletic hookers, covering a lot of ground, carrying the ball hard in the wide channels, getting through a lot of work defensively both in terms of tackle numbers and turnovers, but not really providing that physical edge through the centre of the field or anchoring the scrum as is required against big packs in the URC.
Dacey is the most mobile and has the most experience, Myhill is the slightly more physical of the trio and has the most leadership experience, while Belcher is the best mix of the two although also the smallest of the three, but with none having had a solid hold on the starting spot over the last few years there is an opportunity for someone to jump them.
That someone is one of the most exciting talents that Cardiff have produced in recent years with Efan Daniel consistently catching the eye during the U20 Six Nations and Summer Series, as well as for the Rags, with his incredible engine and pace mixed with an almost reckless abandon of his own personal safety that puts him right at the front of the physical battle for the gain line.
With Evan Lloyd just starting his switch from the back row to hooker, but from the starting point of a much more physical number eight than the lightweight blindsides of Belcher, Myhill and Dacey, the hooker conveyor belt continues, and it wouldn’t be a massive surprise if Daniel was actually able to finish the season as first choice.
Finishing the front row with the tighthead prop spot and it’s a huge season for Dillon Lewis who comes into the campaign off the back of his most positive international window to-date having taken his chance with Tomas Francis and Leon Brown both sidelined to wear the red number three jersey and go toe-to-toe with South Africa with a good level of success.
Turning 27 during this season, Lewis now has to use that as a springboard to kick on for himself on a personal level with a World Cup on the horizon, but also for Cardiff where he becomes a senior member of the squad and possibly prepares to take over from Dmitri Arhip as the senior tighthead prop.
The Moldovan turns 34 in November and comes into the final year of a contract that reportedly puts him high up on the earners list at the Arms Park. Arhip is still a solid scrummager, if not as destructive as he once was, and his experience is vital, but there is an opportunity to jump him into the matchday 23 this year as attention turns to the future.
Will Davies-King certainly has the size to be a successful tighthead, and on eight appearances during the course of last season did not look out of place in the first team, but needs to develop a bit of a mean streak in his scrummaging and around the field if he is to be successful. Given time on the field he could well develop that and jump Keiron Assiratti, who like Brad Thyer has been in and around the first team for a few years now but has few appearances to his name in the last two years, and Arhip by the end of the season.
With Adam Williams brought in from Dragons as a player with perceived better scrummaging potential than the outgoing Nathan Evans, there is a pipeline in place, but the next 12 months will seriously shape exactly what that pipeline looks like in the tighthead prop spot where change is definitely on the horizon.
An interesting time for the front row with young talent on the way through and some more senior players seemingly becoming somewhat stale and sidelined with their contracts coming to an end. The first position group that will benefit from the theme of these Team Reports which is an element of bravery from the coaching staff to put faith in the next generation and give them the game time they need.