Team Report: Back Row

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We finish up the forwards with the back row and me doing my best to keep this look at our options in this area under 10,000 words, because the only way to describe Cardiff’s strength-in-depth is STACKED.

By my reckoning Dai Young has 16 options across the first team and Academy, 10 of which are full internationals with 189 caps between them, plus a recent Wales U20 captain and James Ratti who seems destined to never actually win a Wales cap despite his good form and repeated call-ups.

We start though with the openside/fetcher options where James Botham leads the way after a superb 2021/22 campaign where he was unlucky not to win more Wales honours but was a consistently stand-out performer in a poor Cardiff team. The all-round modern openside who is a competent jackal and link player, but also a strong carrier and a lineout forward, at 24 he is only going to get better.

He will be pushed all the way now by Thomas Young who returns to the club after eight years at Wasps and will bring a more physical edge to the carrying game and defensive work, arguably goes straight in as the best lineout jumper at the club, and will also be a leadership asset having captained the English side on a number of occasions.

Of course Ellis Jenkins will also have something to say about that number seven jersey as he looks to regain form having naturally had some fluctuations post-recovery from his knee injury. Still a very high quality player, the 29-year-old reportedly struggled with some knee pain and inflammation during the second half of last season, but if he can overcome that he will once again be a key player for Cardiff.

And then covering across the back row is arguably the best rugby player in the squad as Josh Navidi is back with the Blue and Blacks first team for a 14th season and still continuing to push his own limits as he never seems to rest on his laurels. Injuries hampered him last season, but some strong performances in South Africa over the summer saw him in good nick which will hopefully continue into the winter and on to the World Cup.

What will be interesting heading into this season is how Dai Young chooses to strike a balance in his back five forwards as, with Lopeti Timani slotting into the second row and not being a recognised lineout jumper, there is a need for lineout forwards in the back row, but also a consideration to bring more bulk on to the blindside to ensure a level of physicality rather than an all-out focus on the jackal.

Josh Turnbull is the obvious regular candidate for that job as an accomplished lineout caller and jumper, a physical presence around the field and an experienced set piece operator, as well as the club captain bringing that level of leadership that is too often lacked when Cardiff need it the most. You know it’s at least a 7/10 from the 34-year-old week-in, week-out.

There is Shane Lewis-Hughes too, still only just about to turn 25 and off a season of niggling injuries and game time frustration, but a Wales international who is the ultimate competitor. Gets through an unbelievable amount of work whenever he takes the field, but needs a run of games at this point in his career if he is to push on to be a regular at the top level.

Then there is the consideration that players we see as out-and-out number eights switching to the blindside, with Taulupe Faletau and James Ratti both on the books.

Faletau is undoubtedly one of the best players on the planet, a truly world class player who, at 31, still has plenty of good years ahead of him and will want to be fit and in good form. Ratti, meanwhile, has come a long way in the last 18 months as a top ball carrying prospect, and working together at 6 and 8 could provide the carrying partnership and defensive bulk that Cardiff miss all too often.

Finally, Dai Young also has the option of finding that bulk in the engine room and operating some guys at blindside who are in the second row stocks. Lopeti Timani has plenty of back row experience earlier in his career, Seb Davies and Matthew Screech have both played blindside, the former being effective there for Wales in the last Six Nations, while Teddy Williams also has the attributes to make a good 6.

Just in case anyone was wondering as well, the back row conveyor belt continues to rumble on with some excellent talent waiting in the wings to make their mark.

Gwilym Bradley has looked assured whenever called upon by the first team, while Alex Mann was a standout for Wales U20 during the U20 Six Nations earlier in the year as a player and a leader, and will look to kick on with a lot of Rags rugby this season.

Mackenzie Martin is a seriously talented young man, a physical blindside or number eight who made his Wales U20 debut over the summer and will look to feature for them again this season along with the Rags, while Gwilym Evans will be on the hunt for Premiership game time as the former Glantaf man steps up from a season of BUCS Super Rugby with Cardiff Uni.

It’s a simply incredible list of talent that we are lucky to have at the Arms Park, but striking the right balance for each game around bulk, lineout work and link play will be key if the Blue and Blacks harbour serious ambitions of making it to the United Rugby Championship play-offs and topping the Welsh Shield table.

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