Cardiff switch back focus to the European Challenge Cup this weekend knowing that qualification for the round of 16 is all but assured after back-to-back bonus point wins before Christmas.
A victory over Newcastle at the Arms Park on Sunday will secure that spot in the knockout rounds, but similarly losses for a handful of teams will also see a little “q” appear next our name in the pool table and let the numerous permutations for figuring out our opponents begin.
Going into this next two weeks the ultimate goal has to be securing top spot in pool A in order to ensure home advantage in the round of 16 and, hopefully, further into the tournament too. Clearly there’s a competitive advantage there, but there’s also a commercial element to at least one, possibly more, home European knockout encounters.
However, there are two sub-plots at play for Dai Young as he assesses team selection for this Sunday’s game and the following week’s trip to Brive.
The first is that the squad will have to transition over the next three weeks from the, injuries aside, first choice 23s that have been put out in the Welsh derbies to an international window squad as those selected by Warren Gatland head into camp for the 2023 Six Nations which gets underway at the start of February.
From the trip to Leinster on the 28th January through to probably the weekend of the Challenge Cup round of 16 at the start of April, those called up will likely be unavailable. That means the home games against Benetton and Ulster, and the visits to Leinster and Zebre, will see some “second string” faces take to the field.
That, tied in with the fact that those Cardiff players in the National 38 have limits on their club game time, means Young will have to consider giving some squad members who have featured sparingly, or not at all, over the last month a go to ensure they’re fit and in form ahead of some vitally important United Rugby Championship fixtures.
Taulupe Faletau, Tomos Williams, Josh Adams and Liam Williams are nailed on selections for the national side, while Rhys Carre, Seb Davies, Jarrod Evans, Rhys Priestland and Ben Thomas are all in contention for the 36-man squad to be announced next week.
As a result the likes of Brad Thyer, James Ratti, Ellis Bevan, Aled Summerhill and Jason Harries would benefit from the opportunity to stretch their legs and get up to match speed before they travel out to Dublin at the end of the month looking to keep play-off hopes alive.
The second sub-plot is that these two weeks present as close to an ideal opportunity as there is in professional rugby to give some talented younger players a chance to experience first team senior rugby against sides from England and France.
Rhys Barratt has impressed for Wales U20s and the Rags at loosehead, Efan Daniel looks ready for a run of games at hooker, Teddy Williams could do with getting some starts under his belt in the second row in a similar fashion to Mason Grady in the centre, while Cameron Winnett continues to be one of the best players in the Welsh Premiership at full-back.
That’s not to say throw them all in at once, quite the opposite in fact. We do not want a repeat of last season’s trip to Treviso by any stretch of the imagination. It’s the possibility to put Winnett alongside Josh Adams in the back three, or to have Daniel pack down with Rhys Carre in the front row, that these next few weeks offers. Not just send them out to sink with no support on the field.
Winning still remains the main objective, but with the pressure off and a bigger picture to look at, now seems as good a time as ever to put some forward planning in place and get the squad ready for certainly the weeks, and possibly the months and years to come.
We wait to see what Dai selects!