Here’s a statement that will probably surprise quite a large number of people; Rhys Carre is only 24 years of age.
“How?!” I hear the exclamations reverberate around Wales, “he’s been playing for at least a decade”. Truthfully, I wouldn’t even blame anyone for having that viewpoint. Perhaps it’s been the pandemic warping the passage of time, or the fact that he burst on to the scene as a much-talked about teenager, but the loosehead prop is still very much in the first part of his career.
You have to go back to November 2016 for an 18-year-old Carre to make his debut for Cardiff off the bench against Exeter in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, before he had even appeared for Wales U20. Over the next two years heads would begin to turn as strong showings for the Rags and the 20s followed, before a meteoric rise over the 12 months from October 2018 to October 2019.
United Rugby Championship debut, Heineken Champions Cup debut, Wales debut, and a spot in the squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup to top it all off. It’s almost video game-esque in it’s absurdity.
As ever with a rate of development such as that, especially in the cauldron that is Welsh rugby, the level of expectation rises to such an extent that the context of Carre still being very much in the early stages of his career is forgotten. Criticism is levelled towards scrummaging, fitness and general work rate as if it’s a 75-cap senior player being discussed.
There is no second thought given to the fact that the pandemic, followed by two years worth of tackle bag holding in Wales squads, have prevented the player from properly developing. That is, until this season, where a run of games and being left out of the Autumn Internationals squad have seen The Big Red Machine™ play his best rugby to date.
Rhys Carre has had size on his side as long as I’ve seen him play. At age-grade level this made him an obvious stand-out, playing against opposition his age who he could physically dominate with ease, but as he graduated into senior rugby that domination wasn’t there, even though he was still one of the biggest men on the field more often than not.
The 24-year-old has worked seriously hard on his technique and his game awareness, and it’s paying dividends.
At the set piece, not just at scrum time but also on both sides of the maul, he’s becoming a serious threat. Too often the lazy criticism that he’s a poor scrummager is thrown around with no regard given to the fact that Cardiff lack a strong scrummaging hooker and struggle for depth at both tighthead prop and in the second row.
For the Blue and Blacks scrum to even offer a platform, let alone win penalties, is in no small part down to the improvements Carre has made over the last 18 months or so, with a similar story for the defensive maul where the prop plays a key role on the outside of the counter drive. This is particularly noticeable when the opposition throw to the front and Cardiff look to push them into touch.
Alongside a big and physical hooker the set piece aspect of Carre’s game can go to the next level again, but his point of difference to other loosehead props is in open play where he has been outstanding for Cardiff on both sides of the ball so far this season.
It’s a story of the stats where the former St Joseph’s junior player has carried the ball 52 times in the URC so far this season, the second highest of any prop, he’s in the top 50 tacklers in the competition with 73 to average nearly seven per game, has won nine turnovers to put him joint-fourth on the league list, and has three tries to his name across all competitions.
There are elements of Cardiff’s tactics that have aided those stats, of course. We are a particularly jackal heavy team, and we’ve also overhauled our tight carrying game so that the workload is shared more evenly leading to greater effectiveness from each player when they do get their hands on the ball.
However, Carre individually has grown within that. Regular game time has seen his fitness increase so that he can make repeated efforts, while his reading of the game has improved to the level that he can target specific breakdowns to effect turnovers, and pick certain phases where his carrying will have the most impact, as well as differing angles to test the opposition defence.
With quality touches like that offload for Tomos Williams, Rhys Carre is showing off the all-court game that separates him from other loosehead props not just in Wales, but in the URC and Europe generally.
Having said that, with Six Nations squad announcements on the horizon, the Cardiff man still faces stiff competition for a spot in the Wales 23, let alone the number one jersey. We know that Warren Gatland is a fan, but the New Zealander is returning to a squad that has good depth on the loosehead side of the scrum.
Nicky Smith has been in fantastic form for the Ospreys for some time now, and not had the opportunities at international level that the form deserves. His club team-mate Gareth Thomas has made the step up to the Wales squad with relative ease, a player in a similar mould to Carre as a competent scrummager mixed with athletic attributes.
Wyn Jones, who Gatland selected for the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa, is reportedly close to a return to action after a serious knee injury, while Rhodri Jones was the man who got the nod in the Autumn squad and was solid enough when called upon.
For Carre though the focus has been clear; performing for Cardiff week-in, week-out. That focus has not faltered at all and so, as we find ourselves around the mid-point of the season, it’s difficult to consider a better candidate for the totally imagined player of half the year award.
The Big Red Machine™ is rolling at some pace indeed.