Team Report: Outside Backs

It’s the final part of the Team Report at last! In case you’ve missed any of the other positions over the last few weeks here’s the links;

Front Row – https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/team-report-front-row/

Lock – https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/team-report-lock/

Back Row – https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/team-report-back-row/

Half Back – https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/08/11/team-report-half-backs/

Centre – https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/team-report-centre/

So we’ve gone from the big boys and we’ve reached the quick boys at the back, and it’s certainly a good time to watch the outside backs at the Arms Park.

We start with the star of the CAP turf/plastic over the past few years, Cardiff and Wales winger Alex Cuthbert. Since breaking into the first team, Cuthy has become a real fan favourite in Cardiff, and gone on to perform at the highest level for Wales and the British Lions. After studying and playing at Hartpury College, Cuthbert moved onto UWIC, as it was then, before being picked up by Cardiff RFC in the 2010/11 season. Despite only scoring two tries in four blue and black appearances, Cuthy started the first game of the 2011/12 Blues season and made a try scoring debut, which set the tone for him to go on and get 14 tries in 19 in his first season. He also made his Wales bow that year against Australia in the autumn, before scoring three tries as the Grand Slam was won. Over the next two seasons, Cuthbert scored 15 Cardiff tries in 31 appearances, as well as helping Wales to the 2013 Six Nations title with a brace against England in that famous 30-3 victory. However, this last year has been a tough one for the big winger, with only four tries in 18 games, three of which came in the games against bottom side Zebre, and the form struggle hasn’t only been seen in a blue shirt, with just one try in his last nine for Wales leading to him losing his place in the starting XV ahead of the World Cup. When he returns from the tournament, Cuthbert will have a lot of form recovering to do in Cardiff.

Cuthbert has a lot of form finding to do

Ahead of this season, and perhaps with Cuthbert’s poor form in mind, the management have recruited two new additions to the back three ranks, in the familiar face of Tom James, and the somewhat unknown quantity of Blaine Scully. Of course, Tom James needs little introduction to any Cardiff rugby fan with half a memory. Having broken into the first team in 2006, aged 19, before scoring 11 tries in 16 games during 2007/08, he made his Wales debut in the same season, going on to win 10 caps until 2010, the absence only being broken by a surprise World Cup training squad call-up at the start of the summer, although injury put an end to that. After scoring 39 tries in 117 games, James left CAP for Exeter in 2013, but after two seasons at Sandy Park, he returns as still the holder of Cardiff Blues top try scorer and with the intention of properly breaking back into Gatland’s side. Someone who doesn’t need to break into any National sides, however, is new signing, and USA vice-captain, Blaine Scully. Joining fellow American, Cam Dolan, and former American high performance manager, Billy Millard, in Cardiff, Scully will be looking to really make his mark in European rugby. Having started his career in U.S. Colleges, he moved onto the Sevens circuit with the national team, before signing for Leicester on a trial basis. He impressed enough on the back of a try scoring debut to earn a full-time contact and joins Cardiff on the back of six tries in 34 games for the Tigers. Blaine is a strong runner and has plenty of experience with two World Cups under his belt, and will be sure to provide plenty of competition in the back three.

Tom James is back in blue and hopefully scoring more tries

Also looking to compete in the outside backs are a pair of somewhat Cardiff rugby stalwarts now, in Richard Smith and Dan Fish. With Fish on 62 appearances, and Smith eight off his half century, both have been integral parts of the Blues squad over the past few years, especially when it comes to International windows. Both have come via Cardiff RFC, Fish from the academy, while Smith arrived from Neath RFC via Australia. Both also share Wales Sevens experience and can each cover two positions, Dan Fish at full-back or wing, and Rich Smith at centre or wing. Playing styles wise, Smith is a powerful runner and strong defender, while Fish has pace to burn, and a handy left boot. With the number of international backs increasing, both will have a big part to play in any Cardiff rugby successes over the coming years.

Richard ‘Mr Dependable’ Smith

Looking to play a part alongside them are the academy graduate duo of Aled Summerhill and Owen Jenkins. As mentioned in the Centre section of the Team Report, Summerhill won last season’s Welsh Premiership Player of the Year and can play in midfield as well as in the back three. He played predominantly at full-back last season at Pontypridd, but I’d imagine will probably appear mostly on the wing at the Arms Park this season as he adjusts to pro rugby, kind of Leigh Halfpenny style. Challenging him for a spot on the wing will be fellow Ponty loannee Owen Jenkins. At 22, Owen is now getting to the stage where he needs to be playing regular XV-a-side rugby, if that’s the direction he wants to go after spending some time with Wales Sevens. With only eight senior appearances and no tries to his name so far, 2015/16 could be a massive year for Owen Jenkins.

Aled Summerhill needs to prove his massive potential this season

The good thing for Danny Wilson inheriting this side is that there are lots of options in the back three as we have plenty of utility backs. Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell are both equally adept at full-back from fly-half, Cory Allen and Tommy Isaacs can step out onto the wing from centre, and both Geraint Walsh and Adam Thomas can switch between full-back and midfield. 

In fact, we’ve got so many options in the backs we can even let one go as Tom Williams heads off to Scarlets on a season long loan. Tom, brother of Lloyd, has only managed to make 22 appearances so far, but has been travelling a lot with Wales Sevens. The quick winger scored 18 tries in 41 games for Cardiff RFC, and will hope a full season down West will put him in good stead to compete for a starting spot next season. 

Although it doesn’t look right, Tom Williams will be looking to impress down West

The production line of outside backs continues as well, with Harry Davies and Elis Wyn Benham both coming through the blue and blacks team this season. Both are different in their styles, with 5ft7 Benham bringing the pace and quick feet, while 6ft4, 16st Davies has the power. Both have big futures ahead on the wings of the Arms Park, and hopefully for Wales one day as well.

Elis Wyn Benham could be playing for Cardiff for many years

Conclusion

A good time to be a backs coach at Cardiff with Alex Cuthbert and Tom James, the leading Blues try scorers in the ranks, alongside the new blood of Blaine Scully and exciting young talent of Aled Summerhill and Owen Jenkins. I guess the only problem is fitting them all in? Not a bad problem to have though, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Danny Wilson and co work it out.

Team Report: Centre

Well so far we’ve had Front Row – https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/team-report-front-row/

And then we’ve had Lock – https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/team-report-lock

Followed by Back Row – https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/team-report-back-row

Before going into the Backs – https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/08/11/team-report-half-backs/

So it’s onto centre and properly into the back line now. Historically Centre has been a somewhat talented area for Cardiff with the legendary post-war club and country partnership of Bleddyn Williams and Jack Matthews, Gerald Davies and Mike Hall all appearing in blu and black, before more recently Tom Shanklin, Gareth Thomas and Jamie Roberts all excelling, as well as Owen Williams before his cruel neck injury curtailed an extremely promising career.

The current crop of Centres will be led by this summer’s marquee signing, Rey Lee Lo from Hurricanes. The Samoa international has made two appearances for his country, in last year’s Autumn series, as well as playing 30 Super Rugby games in two spells at the Canes, and at the Crusaders, also scoring nine tries in 53 ITM Cup games for Counties Manukau, alongside Tana Umaga. Signed by Mark Hammett before his departure, Rey is a strong, quick and agile Centre, and will hopefully add some much needed dynamism to the Cardiff midfield, keep an eye out for him at the Rugby World Cup and hopefully for a long time after on the plastic CAP pitch.

Rey Lee-Lo escapes a Highlanders tackle

Joining Rey Lee-Lo at three-quarter will be the next Cardiff hope for Welsh great in Cory Allen. The Glamorgan Wanderers youth product has come through both the Cardiff Academy and Wales age grade systems, being named Most Improved Player at the 2012 Junior World Championship, under the coaching of Danny Wilson. He joined the Cardiff RFC ranks in 2011, going on to make 26 appearances and scoring eight tries across three season, making his senior Blues debut in the same year against Newcastle in the Anglo-Welsh Cup. 2013-14 was Allen’s breakthrough season, making his Wales debut against Argentina in the Autumn Internationals and 12 club appearances, only a shoulder injury stopping him playing more and possibly making his Six Nations bow, although he was still included in Warren Gatland’s squad to tour South Africa in June 2014. Last season he appeared 20 times in a blue shirt and was arguably our best back, and at just 22 he will be around for many years to come, assuming we keep hold of him. Unfortunately we may have to wait until after the Rugby World Cup to see him pair up with Rey Lee Lo, as Cory has been included in Wales’ 31 man squad, but hopefully it will be a welcome boost to the season when they both arrive back in Cardiff.

Hopefully Cory Allen will score plenty of tries when he returns from the World Cup

Until then the likely centre pairing will be the experienced domestic duo of Gavin Evans and Tommy Isaacs. Between them they have played for all four Welsh Pro clubs and Gloucester, with Evans appearing 78 times for Llanelli before arriving at Cardiff in 2009, meanwhile Isaacs started his career at Newport, before heading to the Ospreys for five years, signing for Cardiff after a brief spell in the West Country.They also have international experience under their belts, Evans making his one and only Wales appearance against the Pacific Islands in 2006, while Isaacs is a Sevens World Cup Winner. With Gavin Evans, you know what you’re going to get. He’s become somewhat of an Arms Park stalwart, with over 100 appearances in six years, including 24 last season, he’s a vital part of the Cardiff midfield. Most comfortable at 12, Evans isn’t anything special when it comes to an inside centre, which isn’t meant as an insult, more a statement of fact in the sense that he won’t be taking on the crash ball, he isn’t particularly light on his fight or a skilled footballer, and he’s not overly susceptible to many moments of magic, but he’s dependable, provides good ball to those outside, on occasion provides a line break, and is solid in defence. Meanwhile outside him at 13, Tom Isaacs is still a somewhat unknown quantity in a blue shirt. Joining halfway through last season with an injury, he only made 11 appearances, with six off the bench, so a run of games during the World Cup will certainly do him no harm. He looks a bit more dynamic to Evans, and doubling up as a winger he has no problem with ball in hand, but I have to say that last season he did appear to be carrying a pound or two, so hopefully after a full pre-season he can gain that match sharpness and provide a bit of go-forward ball in midfield.

Also hoping to capitalise on the World Cup, and challenge Evans and Isaacs for the title of interim centre, will be one of very positives to come out of last season, Garyn Smith. The Pontypridd product, who is still technically part of the Cardiff Academy system, has spent the early part of his senior career at his hometown club, but last season broke into the first team at the Arms Park in a big way. After impressive performances in the LV Cup against Llanelli and Newcastle, he made his debut in the last two minutes at Edinburgh the week after, but had to wait until after Christmas for another opportunity, again in the LV Cup away at Wasps. This triggered his real first team breakthrough, playing half an hour in Treviso, before going on to make three successive starts against Glasgow, Llanelli and Ospreys in the Pro12. Smith rounded off the season with a try off the bench against Zebre and will be hoping, like myself, to be given more opportunities to cross the whitewash this season. After a successful summer at the Junior World Championship with four appearances for Wales U20s, and a try against France, it’s important not to rush him into a permanent starting spot, but with the likes of Rey Lee-Lo and Cory Allen to learn off, the future is bright for Garyn Smith.
 

Garyn Smith could have a massive future at Cardiff and Wales
 

Out of the specialist centres and into the utility backs, and we do have an abundance of them, is there quality in there? Well, we’ll see. I’ll start with a cursory mention of Tavis Knoyle in the centre, after his enforced cameo at Newport, where actually he didn’t perform too badly. He also made his Wales debut at centre, but with Lloyd Williams away on international duty at the World Cup, Knoyle will be first choice scrum half for a few months, and I think only a serious injury crisis will see him line up in midfield again. More likely to act as cover in the centres are former Pontypridd duo Geraint Walsh and Adam Thomas. Both are comfortable in the midfield and at full-back, and both arrived at the Arms Park last summer from Sardis Road, Walsh are a successful campaign that saw him named Premiership Player of the Year 2013/14, and Thomas having retired from Wales Sevens after 24 tournaments. Thomas had the better of the first campaigns, making 20 appearances in all competitions and bagging three Pro12 tries, whereas Walsh struggled to hold down a regular first team place, only playing in 9 games. Although Thomas didn’t look too out of place in the professional game, I fear Walsh’s poor contribution is just more evidence of the widening gap between the Premiership and Pro12, where the A team entering the British and Irish Cup will come into it’s own. As it happens, I think both of these players will be good additions to the A team with the experience of the BIC and Premiership, and personal experience aiding the young players the side is mainly aimed at.

Finally, there are two other names I’d throw into the ring of the centres, and they are Richard Smith and Aled Summerhill. In the case of Smith he is a natural winger, whereas Summerhill is more confident at full-back, however both can cover successfully in the midfield. I will expand on them both more in the outside backs blog which completes the team report, but Richard Smith has deputised well a number of times at centre, most notably in my memory away at Toulon in 2014 against Basteareaud and Giteau, despite the defeat. Summerhill came through the academy as a centre, won Premiership Player of the Year at Pontypridd last year as full back, and started Cardiff’s pre-season win at Bristol on the wing, showing his versatility which could be put to great use this season by Danny Wilson.

  

Conclusion

Despite both first choice centres being away at the World Cup at the start of the season, there’s still strength in depth with the experienced Gavin Smith and Tom Isaacs, as well as the exciting young Garyn Smith, however it will be good to see Rey Lee-Lo lining up at 12 and 13. The good news for centre is that the versatility of our backs means we won’t, or shouldn’t, ever be short, with players mentioned like Richard Smith, and Summerhill, Adam Thomas and Geraint Walsh and even Knoyle and Patchell if need be. Things are looking strong in midfield.

Team Report: Half Backs

After assessing the forwards it’s time to move onto the backs, but if you’ve missed the series so far then have a look at the front row (https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/category/team-report/front-row/), second row (https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/category/team-report/lock/), and back row (https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/category/back-row/).

So the forwards was a mixed bag, strong in places, considerably worse in others. However, it’s a good start behind the scrum as we start at number nine, and the link between forwards and backs.

Scrum Half

The 2015/16 season will actually be a very interesting one when it comes to scrum half as, as far as I’m concerned, we have at least two, and possibly three, players capable of holding down the starting position. Lloyd Williams was arguably the standout performer last season, although Tavis Knoyle finished strongly after a slow start, meanwhile Lewis Jones stepped in comfortably when need be.

Starting with Lloyd Williams, as probably our best scrum half last season, he had his best ever season in terms of try scoring with 11 and made 24 appearances in all competitions. A bit of credit can go to Mark Hammett in terms of improving Lloyd’s quick ball abilities at the breakdown, and also his sniping around the sides of the ruck. Certainly the quick ball put us on a good platform to attack off on a number of occasions, however unfortunately Williams was let down by the outside backs. In international terms, the former Cowbridge Comprehensive student was identified as talented early on, following in father Brynmor’s footsteps, playing for each Welsh team from U16 to U20, before joining the senior squad in time to make three substitute appearances at the 2011 RWC. After being a key part of Warren Gatland’s 2012 and 2013 Six Nations Squads, he last appeared for the national side in the 2013 November series. However, after this season’s exploits, Williams was called up to Warren Gatland’s RWC training squad, a deserved reward for a top season. Realistically he is up against Gareth Davies of the Scarlets for that third scrum half spot, and of course part of me hopes he gets it, but a selfish part also hopes he can be available for the start of our Pro12 season.

Lloyd Williams was the standout scrum half last year

Even if Lloyd does stay with the Wales squad though, it won’t be the end of the World. With Tavis Knoyle challenging for that number nine shirt, there’s certainly quality to be found in the replacements. After returning to Wales last summer from Gloucester, Knoyle had a pretty slow start to the season, not really getting any serious game time, LV Cup aside, until the back-to-back Dragons games over Christmas. Even then his season didn’t exactly take off, only featuring off the bench, with the exception of an appearance at centre back in Newport during the Challenge Cup quarter-final. Having said that, that’s more to do with Lloyd Williams’ fine season, I was actually very impressed with Knoyle coming off the bench, and quite often he was the catalyst in our often infuriating ability to only play well in the last 10-15 minutes of games. Tavis, like Lloyd, turned out for each Wales age-grade team from U16 to U20, and has broken into the senior side, also playing at the RWC 2011. However, unlike Williams, Knoyle is still in the middle of a break from the national team, last playing in June 2013, therefore hopefully he can follow Lloyd’s lead and a good season coming will put him back on Gatland’s radar.

Tavis Knoyle will hope to be involved more for Cardiff next season

Behind Williams and Knoyle, but by no means relegated to a third choice scrum half, is Lewis Jones. The beauty of having these three players competing is that there isn’t a set order to them. Yes, I would say this is how I would rate them after last season, but each has the ability to be the first choice number nine on their day, and Jones certainly does. He has the quick ball trait, probably providing the best ball of the three, he just needs to work on his all round game, as scrum half is more than just linking the forwards and the backs, it’s about looking for chances around the fringes, becoming part of set piece plays and also put in a defensive shift, sweeping behind the defensive line. However, the problem Jones has is that he has never really had the chance to improve on these skills regularly. Take last season for instance, he appeared in 13 games leading up to Christmas, before only turning out only four times after the New Year. Having said that, despite a somewhat indifferent start to his Cardiff career, being released from the Academy before re-signing a year later, Jones has already made 76 appearances in blue and at only 22 I hope he will build on his ever reliable start and become an Arms Park stalwart.

Second time lucky at Cardiff for Lewis Jones

As well as the three senior scrum halves, the trend of having promising youngsters coming through continues into the backs, and hopefully they will both benefit from the new A teams going into the British and Irish Cup. First up is Tomos Williams, the Treorchy product having a very successful season in the white and black of Pontypridd, winning the Premiership and the award for best newcomer to the league, in the red of Wales, missing only one game across the U20 Six Nations and Junior World Championship, while also making three substitute appearances for the Blues in the LV Cup. Named as one of the 14 rising stars of the We;sh Premiership by WalesOnline, he is described as ‘having snappy distribution’, meaning he can hopefully slot into the Cardiff back line easily in the near future. Also in the 14 rising stars list is Michael Hale. At just 19 he broke into the Cardiff RFC team in the second half of last season, playing 14 times between December and April. Hopefully he can have as successful first full season in the Premiership as Williams has had, and some exposure at A team level will certainly aid his development. Maybe one day he can actually get some information added to his profile on the Blues website!

Conclusion: A good battle is in store for the scrum half position, and we hopefully are set for a few years with the three senior players still young and Tomos Williams coming through the ranks.
 

Tomos Williams is the future of Cardiff number 9s
 

Fly-Half

Now, forget who’s going to start at scrum half for a second, because the biggest battle of the season for a place in the starting line-up is coming up. Rhys Patchell v Gareth Anscombe: The Battle of the Standoffs, coming to a plastic pitch in Cardiff soon. In all seriousness, it is a really interesting dilemma facing new coach Danny Wilson, how do you fit two fly-halves battling for the Wales number ten Jersey at the World Cup into a club side in desperate need of both their skill sets? 

Well let’s have a look at them, starting with last summer’s marquee signing, Gareth Anscombe. Arriving after some Mark Hammett and Warren Gatland negotiating, with his mother’s Welsh birth certificate in hand, Anscombe made his first appearance against Edinburgh in November, but endured a difficult introduction to Northern Hemisphere rugby with three charge downs in the subsequent three weeks resulting in tries for Treviso and two for London Irish. Despite this there were also encouraging signs with ball in hand, his willingness to take flat ball and ability to spot a line break real bonuses, as we saw on New Year’s Day against Newport when he almost single-handedly cut them apart in the second half. With these glimpses of quality a Six Nations squad call came, shortly followed by a National Dual Contract, meaning that although his appearances will be restricted next season, Chicken, as he’s affectionately known, will have a big part to play in our season.

New Welshman Gareth Anscombe might just be the key to our resurgence

Pushing him all the way will be the local boy though, Rhys Patchell. After coming through the academy system and passing through the Cardiff RFC ranks, the Glantaf product has matured very quickly in a blue shirt. Despite only turning 22 at the end of last season, Patchell has already played over 50 times and scored nearly 400 points, resulting in him being fourth on the Pro12 points scorer list for 2014-15. Unlike Anscombe, Rhys has no problem with putting boot on ball, after coming into a Cardiff side coached by Phil ‘kick it away’ Davies, while also having a quite incredible range off the kicking tee. However, lack of time spent with ball in hand means his decision making in the offensive line is sometimes questionable, although his change of pace is a top weapon to keep in the armoury. 

Rhys Patchell can use his huge kicks to boot Cardiff to success

If you’re looking for an outcome then I believe everyone you ask will have a different idea on who should start where. As for me, I’d have them both at fly-half. You might ask ‘how?’, but I think there’s a simple solution. When both Anscombe and Patchell are available, you send one out wearing 10, one out wearing 15, and tell them to mix and match. Both are more than capable of playing in each position, and last season, on a few occasions, this partnership worked well. Given a chance to flourish it could really work in our favour, and also help to fill the gaps at full-back, which will be explored in a blog to come.

Behind Patchell and Anscombe, there’s a bit of a fight for the role of backup between the young and the experienced. Starting with Gareth Davies, who I definitely am not calling old, despite being 32, he hasn’t been around the Arms Park that long after joining Cardiff RFC in 2007, going on to make 92 appearances before signing for the Blues in 2010. Since then he’s appeared 72 times, albeit 40 of those from the bench, the most memorable being when he came on to score a late winning try against Toulon in 2013. There’s no doubting Davies’ experience and game management skills, but unfortunately he’s not going to set a game alight often enough to make a decent claim for a starting place. 

Gareth Davies crosses for ‘that try’ against Toulon

Onto the young, and it’s looking good it’s fair to say. In Jarrod Evans we have a young stand-off who has helped Pontypridd to league and cup titles, as well as being a regular feature in the Wales U20 side this year. He could’ve had academy colleague James Whittingham alongside him at international level, were it not for a concussion injury. However, the versatile youngster can look forward to a full season with the Blue and Blacks as he continues to develop, and also teaming up with Evans in the new A side as they both step towards the first team. It would be good to see at least Jarrod Evans being given a proper chance at some point this season.

Jarrod Evans will hope to progress from Wales U20 to the Senior eam with Cardiff

Conclusion: Two very strong candidates for the starting spot, and plenty of versatility also in the fly half ranks. Important to keep the conveyor belt of talent rolling.

Team Report: Lock

So the front row has been done here https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/team-report-front-row/, now it’s time to move into the second row…

Lock

In all honesty this was probably our weakest position last season, and nothing much has changed going into 2015/16. We were so short in the second row last season that our European squad didn’t have enough cover when there was a mini injury/suspension/international call-up crisis, that Scott Andrews lined up there against Rovigo. Since then we have lost arguably our best lock last season, Filo Paulo, to Treviso, but it says something when this isn’t even a massive loss for the club.

By rights our best second row should be Jarrad Hoeata. The New Zealander joined at the start of last season in the ‘Mark Hammett revolution’, with 66 Taranaki games, 57 Super Rugby appearances for the Chiefs and Highlanders, and three All Black caps under his belt. However, despite a solid start to the season, Hoeata never really kicked on, and encountered some disciplinary issues with yellow cards coming against Edinburgh and Glasgow, and a high tackle on Rob Kearney earning him a red card against Leinster, followed by a slightly harsh six week ban. Despite these infractions, Hoeata did still make 18 appearances in all competitions and certainly showed glimpses of his quality with some strong defensive performances, decent ball carrying and a willingness to put his body on the line. Perhaps in a more organised defensive system under Graham Steadman and a better pack he will get to that extra level, and at only 31 he still has time to become a Blues stalwart over the next few years.

Jarrad Hoeata is sent-off against Leinster
Jarrad Hoeata is sent-off against Leinster
Behind Hoeata it is not an exaggeration to say we’re seriously struggling. Competing for the spot as second best lock are the Chuckle Brothers of the second row world, Lou Reed and Chris Dicomidis. In doing a bit of homework for this article I actually found out something quite shocking, that Dicomidis will only turn 30 at the start of this season, and Reed will only be 28! I mean, starting with Reed, the bloke lumbers around the pitch like he’s a 30+ year old veteran coming towards the end of a tough career. He made 10 starts and two substitute appearances last year, yet it would be a challenge for anyone to remember when he put in a really good performance, or did anything even remotely memorable. Then with Dicomidis, he is a prime example of how poor the quality of the Welsh Premiership is, and how big the gap between that and the pro game has become. After 10 years with Pontypridd and becoming Club Captain in 2010, Dico made the step up to the Blues full time in 2013 and after a moderately promising start, including a fairly impressive performance away at rich French bully boys Toulon. However, those initial surprise performances became a thing of the past pretty quickly, and last year Dicomidis only made four Pro12 appearances, and fair to say his Welsh Premiership past led to him struggling with the skill set required to play Mark  Hammett’s brand of Southern Hemisphere rugby, a style of which I firmly believe we should be trying to play.

Joining Hoeata and the Chuckle Brothers in the senior second row ranks is the somewhat unknown quantity that is new signing Cameron Dolan. The most recent part of Billy Millard’s attempts to remind us he once was involved in United States rugby, Dolan arrives having only made one senior appearance in two years for Northampton as far as I can work out, although is still being pitched to us as a promising player. Although he is able to play in the back row, I can only imagine he will be mainly considered at lock due to the lack of any depth, and at 6ft6 he will be an asset at the lineout, along with an 18st frame he will hopefully make a few yards with the ball in hand. With 10 international caps for the US and still only 25, one can only pray the Florida native adds some much needed quality to our second row options.

Cam Dolan attacks the New Zealand Maori for the USA
Cam Dolan attacks the New Zealand Maori for the USA
Behind the senior second rows there are two youngsters (of sorts) waiting to breakthrough. Despite being 24 at the start of next season, Miles Normandale is still coming through the ranks after only joining the Cardiff set up at the start of 2013 from UWIC. However, after making 31 appearances in two seasons for Cardiff RFC, and seven Cardiff Blues appearances and making his Pro12 debut, he will be looking to kick on at professional level in 2015/16. Seb Davies is the real youngster of the pair at just 19, but his future his big on terms of potential and size, with the Whitchurch lad already standing at 6ft5 and weighing 17 stone. To go with his stature, Davies has come off the back of a Welsh Premiership winning season with Pontypridd, and recently appeared in all of Wales U20’s Junior World Championship matches, scoring tries against Japan and Ireland. Davies also made his Blues debut this year in the LV Cup against Scarlets, and formed a good partnership with Normandale away at Wasps, where late tried from each helped Cardiff to a remarkable comeback victory. It’s possible a partnership was born that day, one which may well be seen more in the new Cardiff Blues A side playing in the British and Irish Cup next year.

Seb Davies in action for Pontypridd
Seb Davies in action for Pontypridd
Conclusion: A real lack of strength in depth here, or any sort of quality at all. Jarrad Hoeata staying fit and continuing to adapt to the Northern Hemisphere game will be key, while Cam Dolan’s progress will be interesting to watch. What I really would like to see happen is either Macauley Cook or Josh Turnbull used primarily as a second row this season, especially with the abundance of talent we possess at the back of the scrum, however this will be scrutinised more in the next instalment of the Team Report, finishing the forwards with the back row.

Team Report: Back Row

Following on from the blogs on the front row (https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/team-report-front-row/) and lock (https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/team-report-lock/), we round off the forwards part of the team report looking at the back row, and it makes for slightly better reading at least.

If you’re talking about Cardiff’s back row there’s only one place to start, and it’s with a certain Mr Sam Warburton. Ever since replacing Cardiff and Wales legend Martyn Williams as the starting openside flanker at both club and international level in 2010, he has grown in stature both in his play and leadership, culminating in becoming the youngest captain to lead Wales at a World Cup, achieving the most Wales caps as captain of the side, and being the first Welsh captain of the Lions since Phil Bennett in 1977 on the 2013 tour of Australia. Warburton has undoubted quality, and is without doubt our best flanker at the moment, however I do sometimes question his performances in a blue shirt. I think this is more to do with the high levels he sets in a Wales jersey rather than any real under-performance issues for Cardiff, but I just can’t help but feel this season that the National Dual Contract he has signed with the Blues and WRU sees him not completely giving his all for Cardiff. It brings up an interesting debate over whether, as Welsh pro rugby club supporters, we want our best players playing more regularly for our home clubs as WRU employees (Warburton made his joint-most starts for Cardiff with 16 last season), we want our best players putting their bodies more on the line risking injury but available, in theory, for all games, although at risk of joining foreign clubs, or just letting our best players join the clubs abroad and using the money saved elsewhere. As things stand with Sam I would like to see more heroic performances that we see for Wales, but his passion isn’t doubted, the story of reading the team the riot act in training before Judgement Day shows that, therefore we do still benefit from his 16 appearances a year, and hopefully an improvement in the overall team performance will lift Warburton with it.

 

Sam Warburton could be the leader of the Cardiff resurgence

Behind Warburton, the conveyor belt of back row talent coming through the Cardiff academy keeps rolling, producing Ellis Jenkins, and the undoubted star of last season, Josh Navidi. In terms of Jenkins, we have seen some excellent performances from the 22 year old who is certainly living up to early showings of potential after captaining Wales U20 to a runner-up place at the Junior World Championship in 2013. Last season he cemented his breakthrough year of 2013/14, appearing 22 times in all competitions and scoring four tries, demonstrating his ability with ball in hand as well as at the breakdown. Unfortunately he will find himself behind Sam Warburton in the pecking order for now, but with years and years ahead of him, he has plenty of time to learn, step up when Sam is on Wales duty, and one day take his place permanently. Onto Navidi, and there’s not much more that can be said that hasn’t been already written. Josh has won a player of the year award, either from the coaches, players or staff, in each of the last three seasons, and last year was the pick of the bunch again. Mark Hammett has to be given credit for one of a few things he brought to the Arms Park, which is switching Navidi to Number 8, where the man with the dread locks has flourished. His ability to get around the pitch, his ball carrying and defensive performances all have resulted in him becoming one of the best players in the Pro12, and I can’t see a return to flanker coming any time soon. How Navidi was not included in the Wales RWC training squad is just a mystery, and quite frankly a travesty. However, if both Ellis Jenkins and Josh Navidi continue to progress the way they are, they will become part of the Wales back row at some point.

 

Hopefully Josh Navidi and Ellis Jenkins will be celebrating Cardiff tries for years

The emergence of Navidi at Number 8, although good for the region, hasn’t been the best thing for Manoa Vosawai. After joining from Treviso at the start of last season, the Italian international started the season well, holding down a starting spot, and putting in a number of big, physical displays. However, his form turned a bit indifferent along with that of the team’s and the Fijian born man was consigned to a more bit-part role in the second half of the season as Navidi laid claim to the spot at the back of the scrum. Having said that, I didn’t ever feel throughout the season that Vosawai was under-performing as such. His power is his main attribute, being one of the main ball carriers throughout the year, consistently getting over the gain line, and putting some seriously big hits in on defence. I do think that with a bit more game time and with some time to settle into the squad, Vosawai will become an important part of the Cardiff squad.

 

Manoa Vosawai will be aiming to lead the Cardiff charge more regularly next season

Back to flanker now and two players vying for the blindside position. Leading the competition is Wales international Josh Turnbull. After joining from the Scarlets last summer, Turnbull has quickly won over the Arms Park faithful with a number of consistent performances, and appeared in every one of Cardiff’s Pro12 games last season. Despite not forcing his way back into the Wales setup this year, the former Llanelli man is still only 27 and has plenty of years to get back into Warren Gatland’s plans and become a key Blues player. Challenging Turnbull all the way is Macauley Cook, the Rhondda boy having graduated through the academy to already make over 70 appearances, yet is still only 23. With the signing of Turnbull, Cook has been consigned to a more bit-part role this season, coming off the bench 13 times, but there could be a way for both players to start consistently next season. In the last blog I wrote about how short on depth and quality we were in the second row, yet here we have two players who can operate at lock. Turnbull made a number of starts there just before Christmas but made no secret of his desire to hold down the number 6 jersey, saying when he signed, “I have played across the back-row, but I want to focus on one position and move my career up another level. I feel focusing on one position week in and week out will improve me; hopefully I can move my game up and push my international claims once again.” Therefore, it seems like it comes to Cook, who signed a new contract until 2018 in February, to bolster the second row options, however I have no doubt he will be a more than worthy partner to Jarrad Hoeata.

 

Macauley Cook could be lining up in the second row a bit next season

Meanwhile, behind the well stocked senior ranks of the back row, there are three academy players ready to form the next generation of successful Cardiff flankers/number 8s. Ben Roach and Jordan Viggers at flanker and James Sheekey at number 8, although all are interchangeable, have all appeared in Wales U20 jerseys this season and are seen as possessing great potential. With all three expected to be linked up to Cardiff RFC this coming season it will be exciting to see them improve in the blue and blacks, as well as in the British and Irish Cup with Cardiff Blues A.

 

The new A team will be excellent for the likes of James Sheekey

Conclusion: Probably the best area in terms of quality of the starting players and general strength in depth, so much so that lending Macauley Cook to the second row is possible. With exciting academy players coming through it looks like the back row could form the foundation of the Cardiff team for many years.

Team Report: Front Row

Welcome to the first in our series of blogs evaluating the current Cardiff Blues squad. Over the next few weeks we will have the lowdown on each position on the field, deciding which players can be seen as surplus to requirements, are exciting players for the future and our top players right now, as well as where we need to strengthen before next season. First up, the heavy boys at the front of the scrum….

Tighthead

Kicking off with tighthead prop and after the departure of Adam Jones to next season’s Challenge Cup opponents Harlequins, we are left with three senior tightheads heading into 2015/16. Craig Mitchell is the first choice out of those in my opinion, and having overcome some fitness issues after signing last summer, he finished the season better playing an hour against the Ospreys at Judgement Day and the Scarlets in the last away game of the season, if he can get a good pre-season in, Mitchell can be a big player for the Blues next season.

Craig Mitchell will be looking for a first full Cardiff season
Craig Mitchell will be looking for a first full Cardiff season

Behind Mitchell in the pecking order we have Scott Andrews and Cardiff stalwart Tau Filise. Unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned, neither are particularly viable alternatives to Mitchell. In terms of Filise, the guy is a Blues legend. However, he is now 38, and although that means he clearly has plenty of experience with two RWCs and 29 Tonga caps under his belt, it also means he’s not as mobile as he once was, and his scrummaging appears to have taken a backwards step, as we saw at Rodney Parade on New Year’s Day when he was hauled off at half-time. With Andrews, it’s a tricky case. Scott was earmarked as a tighthead with potential early on, appearing for Wales U16s, U18s and captained the U20s at the Six Nations and JWC. He made his Blues debut at 19 and was called up to the Wales senior squad at 20 years old, making his debut in 2011. However, since then Andrews has somewhat failed to meet his potential, culminating in a disappointing last season as he clearly didn’t impress Mark Hammett or the Chief and Paul John enough to make a single start in the Pro12, despite being named in Warren Gatland’s Six Nations squad. Personally, I feel Andrews has some excellent qualities, he’s quick and a good ball carrier, but his scrummaging needs some work and he needs to become more consistent. Under forwards specialist Danny Wilson and probably being second choice behind Craig Mitchell, Andrews has a big chance to make 2015/16 his big breakthrough season.

Although the tighthead position in the senior squad is somewhat questionable, the good news is that there is certainly some talent coming through the academy. Dillon Lewis and Joe Jones held down the number 3 shirt in four games of Wales U20s recent JWC campaign, with both having impressive seasons in the Welsh Premiership, Jones at Cardiff RFC, and Lewis at Pontypridd, Lewis also making his professional debut in the LV Cup against Wasps.

Dillon Lewis is the future of Cardiff tightheads
Dillon Lewis is the future of Cardiff tightheads

Conclusion: Could be stronger but not a massive priority, future looks bright.

Loosehead 

Of course there is only one name that matters at loosehead, and that’s Gethin Jenkins. Despite the fact that he will be 35 in November, Gethin is still a top quality prop and the best number 1 in the squad. However, being 35 has lead to a number of injury problems. If we can get a relatively injury-free season out of him this year we may keep him for the season after that, but Gethin isn’t going to be around forever so it’s time to look behind him for a replacement.

The natural replacement in the squad at the moment is Sam Hobbs. Like Scott Andrews on the other side of the front row, Hobbs hasn’t quite built on early potential shown as a Wales youth international, although unlike Andrews, Sam has had some serious injury problems, including two ACL reconstructions and a minor stroke suffered on the field not long after making his Blues debut as a 21 year old in January 2010. Last year though Hobbs had a solid season for Cardiff, only missing one Pro12 game and performing well with Gethin Jenkins injured or on Wales duty. Hobbs has also captained the Blues so provided he has a solid season next season he could be an influential Cardiff player over the years. As well as Hobbs we also have Tom Davies competing for the loosehead position. Davies is a slightly odd case, since making his debut in the LV Cup aged 18 he’s gone on to play 36 times for the Blues since 2011, but I have to say I’ve never really noticed him. At only 22 he still has plenty of time ahead to establish himself as a proper first teamer, and with Wales youth honours under his belt, as well as 15 appearances for Cardiff last year, he has a solid base to build one. 2015/16 could be a big one for the Ponty boy as he bids to prove himself to Danny Wilson, who could well be a perfect coach for him.

Sam Hobbs is looking to be the long-term Gethin Jenkins replacement
Sam Hobbs is looking to be the long-term Gethin Jenkins replacement

With Jenkins, Hobbs and Davies forming the senior trio of looseheads, there’s a fair amount of competition behind them as well with three youngsters coming through the academy. Rob Lewis, and particularly Callum Lewis, had good seasons for Cardiff RFC, and have Wales U18 experiences, while Bradley Thyer has turned out a few times for Pontypridd RFC in 2014/15, exactly how many times I don’t know because their website doesn’t do stats. However, the future for props at the Arms Park looks bright, and hopefully Danny Wilson’s forwards expertise and Wales U20 background can help bring these players through.

Conclusion: Looking pretty good, need to start thinking about life after Gethin Jenkins though.

Hooker

With the departure of former captain Matthew Rees and squad filler Marc Breeze at the end of last season, hooker has to be a priority for new coach Danny Wilson and Billy Millard as they put a squad together for next season. Having said that we do have a ready made first choice for the number 2 shirt in Kristian Dacey. After coming through the Merthyr RFC youth system and then moving through the Pontypridd and Cardiff RFC teams, Dacey made his Blues debut in 2010, and 74 appearances later he has become an integral part of the side. His throwing ability is decent, but the most impressive aspect of his play comes when he’s getting around the field, tackling and hitting the breakdown, and specifically with ball in hand as he’s shown with 11 tries in the last two seasons, not bad at all for a prop. With Dacey hitting 26 next month and currently in the Wales RWC training squad, he’s certainly coming right into his prime.

Kristian Dacey could be the Blues hooker for many seasons
Kristian Dacey could be the Blues hooker for many seasons

The downside of Dacey performing so well is of course the possibility of more time away with Wales. So, who’s there ready to take his place and keep the standards up? Well, not much really. In fact it’s just Rhys Williams. Now this isn’t great on two levels, firstly there’s only one senior hooker in reserve, and secondly, Rhys Williams is yet another example of a teenager with potential not quite making the grade yet. You could form a front row of Williams with Scott Andrews and Sam Hobbs either side that 5/6 years ago you might’ve said could be a Wales front row by now. Like Andrews, Williams has U16 and U18 Wales honours, and captained the U20 side. He made his senior debut for Pontypridd at 17 and became a Blue at just 18. However, 69, mostly substitute, appearances later and Rhys is yet to set the world alight. Having failed to start a single league or European game last season behind Dacey and Matthew Rees, Williams will be hoping to get some more game time this year and begin to kick on. I, however, am praying we sign some competition for him.

If for some reason, though, we didn’t sign a senior hooker, the academy ranks have certainly produced an alternative for Danny Wilson to work on. Liam Belcher is widely regarded as one of the most promising prospects in Welsh rugby at the moment, playing in every U20 Six Nations and JWC game this year and playing a key role in Pontypridd’s Welsh Premiership winning team. Pushing him along is Ethan Lewis, with Wales U18 honours and 54 Cardiff RFC appearances already at the age of 21, Lewis, like Belcher, could be more than capable of stepping up to the Blues side this year if needed. Indeed, both have already made their debuts in the LV Cup last season.

Liam Belcher is one of the biggest hopes in the Blues academy system
Liam Belcher is one of the biggest hopes in the Blues academy system

Conclusion: Desperately need to add a hooker, although Belcher in particular is an exciting prospect.