Throughout the first fixture block of Cardiff’s 2022/23 season, it has felt like there has been the first real shift towards squad evolution for four years as Dai Young starts to get to grips with the Blue and Blacks playing staff.
With the number of players leaving over the summer up in the double figures, a small amount of names sidelined pending departure in the next 12 months, and only a handful of senior summer signings, Dai Young has had to look for fresh faces in the wider squad, especially when you take into account injuries to the likes of Ellis Jenkins, Willis Halaholo, Rey Lee-Lo and Liam Williams.
This has led to the emergence, or re-emergence, of some players who are either taking opportunities for the first time or grabbing second opportunities to impress at the Arms Park. Kris Dacey has enjoyed a run of starts after putting injury troubles behind him, Mason Grady and Theo Cabango continue to impress, while Jason Harries and Cameron Winnett have both had minutes under their belts.
Perhaps the standout name in this sense though has been Max Llewellyn, who has appeared in all seven games in the United Rugby Championship so far this campaign, starting six of those, and not just been one of the best players in the Cardiff side, but across the league as a whole.
It has been a while in the making for the 23-year-old who came to prominence as a member of the 2018 and 2019 Wales U20 squads, as well as playing an important role in the 2018/19 Welsh Cup winning Rags squad and that which was on course to win the 2019/20 Indigo Group Premiership.
Kicking on from that has been tough though; covid struck just after he impressed on his first start for the first team away at Edinburgh in February 2020, before niggling injuries restricted his minutes immediately post-covid and through the first half of the 2021/22 season. It was starting to feel as if Llewellyn’s career would be cursed as a “what might have been”.
However, something started to click in the second half of last season as, while the Blue and Blacks limped towards the end of the season with some pretty miserable team performances, the former Glantaf pupil began knitting starts together, visibly growing in confidence despite the circumstances and finishing the campaign with five straight appearances in the 12 jersey.
That form has carried over to the start of this season where Llewellyn has nailed down a spot in the Cardiff starting midfield after a standout showing against Munster before playing key roles in the wins over particularly the Scarlets and Dragons, showing off an all-round game of carrying, passing and tackling, as well as slotting in comfortably at both inside and outside centre.
The stats make particularly good reading for him as he sits joint-10th in the league for amount of times crossing the gain line (25), joint-30th for total metres gained (188m), joint-5th for line breaks (6) and joint-11th for tackles completed (66).
At 6’5″ and over 105kg his frame has never been in doubt, but Llewellyn has shown off his ability to use that frame alongside his rugby brain, cutting some intelligent lines that give him maximum opportunity to break tackles and put the Blue and Blacks on the front foot, as well as the ability to read the game from a defensive standpoint and make the right decisions.
It’s no surprise that Llewellyn was tipped as a call-up to the Wales squad for the Autumn Internationals, and while it didn’t happen on this occasion, if his form continues to improve as he matures into a first team player then those international honours will not be far away.
In the meantime there is no doubt plenty of work to be done as he continues to understand how to utilise his size and athleticism, increase his understanding of the game, and add some extras to his game particularly around post-contact work; retaining balance to capitalise on line breaks and developing his offloading game.
On top of that there is work for the Cardiff coaching staff to do, particularly Matt Sherratt and Richie Rees, as we understand best how to harness an inside centre who can offer that physical edge, direct carrying threat, and has an all-court game beyond that.
All-in-all though it’s been a superb opening fixture block for Max Llewellyn – a standout player in Blue and Black.