The regional development pathway operated by Cardiff Blues brings together the best junior players from Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan, Rhondda Cynon Taff and South Powys with the aim of guiding them into the senior professional team through semi-professional rugby, schools/colleges and of course, the Blues Academy.
We all know the names such as Sam Warburton, Lloyd Williams, Kristian Dacey, Dan Fish and Jamie Roberts who have come through that academy, so read below and get to know the next set of faces that could become heroes of the Arms Park, or even Wales.
These are the players in the second tier of the academy, still a few years off Pro12 action just yet, but likely to be involved in British and Irish Cup action, as well as maybe Anglo-Welsh Cup, but mostly for their allocated Welsh Premiership sides.
The 18 year-old loosehead prop’s physical stats are already quite impressive, standing at 6ft2 and weighing nearly 19st. After playing for Cowbridge Comprehensive in the WRU College League he has moved up to Cardiff RFC this season, while he also has Wales U18 honours, being named captain of the side.
Also 18, he has followed a similar career path to Rhys Carre, only exchanging Cowbridge for Coleg y Cymoedd and Cardiff RFC for Pontypridd RFC. The hooker also has Wales U18 honours but weighs less than his loosehead colleague, tipping the scales at 15st.
Another former Coleg y Cymoedd pupil, the 18 year old is currently attending Cardiff Metropolitan University and turning out for their side in the WRU Championship. Playing at tighthead he is a Cardiff boy, coming through the junior ranks at Rhiwbina and St Peter’s, and has Wales U18 honours.
Former St Bede’s school first XV captain Novell has previously spent time with England U18s before switching to Cardiff’s academy system. The 19 year old has been allocated to Pontypridd this season where he has made a number of second row appearances.
The 19 year old captained the Cardiff Blues U18 side last season and has Wales U18 honours. A former Coleg y Cymoedd pupil he already stands at 6ft7, being most at home in the second row, although can cover at 6 if required.
Much will be made of the 18 year old being the grandson of Ian and son of Liam, but he could well turn out a fine player in his own right. Born and raised in Yorkshire the flanker has made appearances for Wales U18 before moving over the bridge permanently to join the academy.
19 year-old out-and-out openside who featured for Wales U20s in last season’s U20 Six Nations and Junior World Championship. Also come out of Coleg y Cymoedd, has previously been allocated to Pontypridd but turning out f0r Cardiff RFC this season as he furthers his development.
Another back rower, the Cowbridge Comprehensive graduate is already 6ft2 and 16.5st, at just 19 years-old. Another with Wales honours he is likely to be an 8 or 6, but has not appeared much in semi-professional rugby as of yet.
The final back rower in Tier Two is another former Wales U18 captain. A Cardiff boy he has come through Jamie Roberts former school, Ysgol Glantaf, and played junior rugby for Llandaff RFC. At home with a number eight on his back.
The 18 year-old Coleg y Cymoedd student is a hot prospect amongst Welsh scrum-halves. After gaining Wales U18 honours last season he has gone on to feature for Pontypridd RFC this year and also turned out for Cardiff Blues 7s in the pre-season Premiership 7s tournament.
The Treorchy junior has come through the Cardiff academy ranks alongside being a Coleg y Cymoedd student and has received Wales U18 honours. The 18 year old has turned out for Pontypridd RFC this season, and shifted from a fly-half to more of a centre.
Has followed a similar career to Declan Williams, but started out at Porth RFC rather than Treorchy. The 19 year old has Wales U16 caps and has also gone through Coleg y Cymoedd’s system as more of a centre/winger.
The 19 year-old wing has been in and around the Cardiff Blues academy system for a few years now. The Wales U18 cap come through the Rumney RFC junior section and is now allocated to Merthyr RFC’s Welsh Premiership squad.
The final part of the Team Report sees us get into the quick boys in the back three. After the general opinion of our half-back and centre ranks being that there is plenty of quality but perhaps one or two players short, it’s a similar story here. The realisation is that, although Danny Wilson’s squad trimming is good for increased quality, we are left hoping to avoid any injury crisis,
Starting on the wing and Cardiff’s top try scorer since 2003, Tom James. With 49 tries to his name over eight seasons he made a successful return to the Arms Park last year following a spell at Exeter. Finishing last year with the most tries, 10 in 18 games, he even managed to force his way back into the Team Wales squad after previously falling out with Warren Gatland.
At 29 years old James is right at the peak of his career, and if he can go another injury free season, can easily break the 50 try and 150 appearances marker by May. He’s got all the attributes of a top winger with height and strength combining with a turn of pace, as well as being one of the best finishers in the league. Benefitted greatly from a much wider attacking game last year, hopefully something new backs coach Matt Sherratt can add to.
Joining TJ in the Welsh international wing attack at CAP is Alex Cuthbert. With 16 tries from 43 appearances in international rugby he has certainly proven that he is capable of performing at the highest level. However the last two years have been somewhat of a struggle for Cuthbert who has seen him lose his Wales place before missing the New Zealand tour through injury.
A confidence crisis has been the big issue, from scoring in Lions tests to crossing just four times in 18 games for Cardiff in a year. However, there were glimpses of the old Cuthy returning last season as he scored four times in 11 matches before injury, a=including back-to-back scores against Montpellier. This season will be all about consistency for Cuthbert, who needs to avoid injuries and requires the patience of fans.
Looking to complete the Welsh capped back three is new signing Matthew Morgan who arrives from Bristol looking to really kick on with his international career. He moved to England after making 65 appearances for the Ospreys over four years, scoring 325 points in the process, before leaving to gain more playing time. That worked to an extent at Bristol, but with Gatland’s Law supposedly coming into effect soon he has returned to Wales with former coach Danny Wilson.
Although he can play at fly-half I think it is most likely we will find Morgan at full-back, where his happy and comfortable to play. I would suggest that is his best position as he does lack the presence to play stand-off and is at his best counter-attacking from deep. However, his ability to fill in there will be crucial and hopefully he can develop an understanding with Gareth Anscombe or Steve Shingler at fly-half as Rhys Patchell did last year.
Challenging Morgan for the 15 jersey will be the one and only Dan Fish. Now into his seventh season the cult legend is closing in on the 100 cap club and will provide strong competition at full-back after an excellent season last season where he won the Cardiff Blues Blog Most Improved Player award thanks in part to nine tries from 26 games.
Happy to cover at wing as well, Fish possesses a huge amount of pace and some rapid acceleration which, as well as being an expert contact avoider, means he is an overall elusive runner. Most effective when hitting the offensive lane from deep he has also benefitted massively from the wide and fast attacking game played under Danny Wilson last season.
Someone looking to make more of an impact in their second season at the Arms Park is American international Blaine Scully. After signing from Leicester last summer he struggled to really make his mark upon the side and was limited to just 10 starts, scoring twice. An industrious winger, also capable of playing full-back, he really requires a run of games to get settled in the side.
Also requiring a run of games is young Aled Summerhill as he enters his first full season as a senior player. With six tries from 15 total appearances last season there’s no doubt he has talent and could make it as a top player, but he needs that consistency of playing week in, week out to develop into that. A former Welsh premiership Player of the Year and Wales youth international he has achieved all there is to achieve thus far.
At 6’2″ he is a presence, but also possesses a decent amount of pace, making him an excellent finisher and candidate for winger at this stage of his career. However, he has also featured at full-back and outside centre at different points in his career, so alongside gaining that consistency of playing every week he also needs to nail down a primary position to avoid a James Hook style ‘Mr Versatile’ situation.
The final part of the back three setup for 2016/17 is a new signing into the senior academy squad. Rhun Williams arrives from Rygbi Gogledd Cymru 1404 after a successful summer as Wales U20s starting full-back to further his development at the Arms Park. The 19 year old is already though of highly in Welsh rugby circles and will hopefully live up to potential here.
Likely to spend most of his time playing for Cardiff RFC and the BIC/LV Cup squads, I do hope he will get a chance at Pro12 action for some added experience in his debut season. Like Dan Fish, he is at his best joining the offensive line at deep and has a wicked show-and-go dummy pass in his locker to create a line break. I imagine he’ll mainly feature on the wing for any senior squads this year, but any experience is good experience at this stage.
Overall there’s some excellent options and good versatility to cover right across the back three from the players in this group. Most importantly, there are tries in abundance! If Cardiff can continue to move the ball through the midfield like they did last season then the talent is waiting to convert the chances. Fingers crossed we can go one better this year and top the Pro12 scoring charts on the way to the Champions Cup. Come on Cardiff!!
Moving down the three quarter line from half-backs to centre and the position we’ve had some serious issues with over the past few years. From the days of Casey Laulala, Tom Shanklin, Jamie Roberts and Gareth Thomas it’s been downhill until we were bolstering the midfield with Welsh Premiership players, and even Tavis Knoyle, whilst praying for no injuries.
However, last season things finally began to look up for Cardiff in the centre as Samoan international Rey Lee-Lo was a bit of a revelation having signed from Hurricanes. Joining the squad in October after the World Cup he started off at 13 while he adapted to Northern Hemisphere rugby and began his Arms Park career quite slowly. It wasn’t until December that he lined up at 12 for the first time and his performance level went through the roof.
Despite not appearing to be in the same ilk as a Jamie Roberts or Ma’a Nonu physically, he is a very good ball carrying inside-centre which can be used as a go-to tactic. To go with that though he has a quick pair of feet making him a well-rounded midfield player who bounces off Gareth Anscombe extremely well. After a successful summer away with Samoa I can’t wait to see a full season of Lee-Lo performing at the highest level.
Hopefully this year he can start to form a partnership with Cory Allen outside him as well as Anscombe inside as the Welsh international returns to full fitness. Injury restricted Allen to just six appearances last season, five with Lee-Lo, but he still managed to bag four tries to underline his quality. After a breakthrough season in 2013-14 and 20 appearances in 14/15, last season was a big blow to his development.
Now though Allen has benefitted from a summer with the Great Britain 7s training squad and an extended pre-season stint at Cardiff to get back into a healthy shape. His speed to beat opposition midfielders could compliment space created by Lee-Lo extremely well, and the ability to produce an offload will feed the try merchants on the wing very nicely, as long as all fingers are crossed for an injury free season.
If all of the above goes to plan then international honours could well be on the way for Allen, adding to his four caps, meaning a replacement will be needed. Fortunately, the club have headed to New Zealand and signed up Willis Halaholo from Hurricanes. The Kiwi arrives as a time-server spouting all the normal spiel about ‘wanting to play for Wales’, but we’ll just enjoy him in a Cardiff shirt for now.
Halaholo has had a very successful Super Rugby season, despite only being part of the wider Canes training squad before 2016, playing a vital role in helping them win the Southern Hemisphere competition. Filling the shoes left by Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu is no mean feat but Halaholo stepped up impressively.
Being comfortable at both inside and outside centre I think we’ll see him predominantly at 13 alongside Lee-Lo, and with a bit of banter between the Samoan, Anscombe and Halaholo on Twitter already, there’s a good chance that midfield trio could be a force in the Pro12. For a bigger man Willis has a killer change of gear and a beautiful passing game, while at 26 his best years are still ahead of him. Potentially the signing of the season.
Covering the three established centres is first year senior professional Garyn Smith. After breaking onto the Pro12 scene towards the end of Paul John and Dale MacIntosh’s second caretaker spell, it seemed the Pontypridd product may not feature heavily under Danny Wilson as he made just four starts before March. However, a try scoring appearance at home to Munster saw him start each of the last six games in 2015/16.
Having played all of his senior professional rugby at 13 up until now it seems the long term plan for Smith may be 12. An off-season spent adding some muscle to his frame has readied him for the defensive leadership role of inside centre and an apparent ease at first receiver will help him out. Add to that some pace alongside a good passing range and you do have the makings of a Pro12 inside centre. Will it come off? We’ll have to wait and see.
Waiting in the academy wings for a chance to impress in the first team are two exciting young centres in Harri Millard and Owen Lane. Starting with Wales under-20 international Millard, he made his Pro12 debut last year off the bench in Glasgow and also appeared as a substitute at home to Newport.
Three starts from inside centre at the Junior World Championship over the summer further raised his stock and hopefully a strong season in the British and Irish, and Anglo-Welsh, Cup alongside taking some Pro12 chances when they arrive, will stand him in good stead for a career as Cardiff’s number 12.
To complete the future centre partnership at 13, Lane needs to follow a similar pathway. At just 18 he has already played for the senior side in last pre-season, as well as making his BIC debut for Cardiff A in 2015 and eight Cardiff RFC appearances. With Wales U18 honours already under his belt I’m sure it will be no time before the 20s come calling. A career to watch!
Overall the quality is definitely on show in the centres at the moment and it’s an exciting time for the Cardiff midfield. It may seem that we are slightly light on the ground but when you consider that Steve Shingler and Aled Summerhill are both comfortable at 12 and 13, respectively, then we are well covered for this area of the pitch and hopefully there’ll be plenty of tries to follow. Come on Cardiff!!
Now the big lads of the forwards are out of the way it’s time to move onto the quick men in the backs, starting with the link players at half-back. In Cardiff terms this has been a position we have struggled in over the past four or five years as players have come and gone while no partnerships have really been nailed down.
The main culprit of that has been fly-half as the number nine jersey has been largely claimed by Lloyd Williams over the last five seasons. With 115 appearances under his belt at just 26 years old, we have seen Lloyd just get better and better in front of our eyes to the point where he had his best season last year. The new attacking style suits his quick ball and creates space for the sniping around the fringes he enjoys so much.
I’ve said a number of times on Twitter that I believe Lloyd should have a much bigger part to play in the Wales setup as I certainly believe him to be a superior scrum-half to Gareth Davies. However while Warren Gatland continues to ignore him as long as he gets released back to Cardiff in international windows we will keep benefiting.
While Williams has been the first choice scrum half comfortably over that time his first receiver has been chopping and changing somewhat with Jason Tovey, Gareth Davies and Rhys Patchell all having a go. The time has come though for a true half-back partnership to be formed, and Gareth Anscombe seems to be the man to complete that.
There was no doubt that the jury was out on the young New Zealand born (he was born in New Zealand, you know) player arriving from the Chiefs and he did not cover himself in glory during his first season. A struggle to adapt to Northern Hemisphere club rugby resulted in a number of kick charge downs and no stand-out moments, as well as a call up straight to the Team Wales setup meant a disjointed campaign.
However, after missing all of the first half of last year with an injury picked up at the Rugby World Cup, Anscombe returned to the side with aplomb and collected a number of man-of-the-match awards as the side’s form improved massively. That was no coincidence as his partnership with not only Williams but Rey Lee-Lo at inside centre created an excellent attacking environment.
There is already talk over the summer about Anscombe seriously challenging Dan Biggar for the Wales number ten jersey this season, having mainly been used at full-back on the international scene so far, and I truly believe that he can. His ability to stand flat at first receiver and still have all the time he wants, as well as excellent playmaking abilities and a surprising change of pace means he has all the attributes of a top fly-half. Hopefully he reaches his undoubted potential in a blue jersey!
Arriving to provide some competition for the number ten jersey, and act as cover during international periods, is Steve Shingler who has been signed from Llanelli. After making 63 appearances across four seasons at Parc y Scarlets, as well as spending two years at London Irish he has plenty of experience at just 25 years old. Add in the versatility to cover at centre and full-back and the Gorseinon product could be a shrewd signing.
Many have seen Shingler as a kind of straight swap for Rhys Patchell but what he will offer is a solid presence all season long. Something which is greatly overlooked when it comes to competing in the Pro12 is the ability to put out a good quality side when international players are off on national team duty. With Patchell likely to be involved in Team Wales at some point in the near future, to have Shingler ready and available all year will be a huge asset.
Battling Shingler for that role as primary backup to Anscombe is first year senior professional Jarrod Evans. Last season was the big breakthrough season for Evans as he made his debut vs then Champions Glasgow in the November, going on to make 17 appearances overall and scoring 29 points. This earned him a call up to the Wales U20 Junior World Championship squad where he appeared in all five matches.
Now I’m not saying Evans is the finished article but I am a big fan of the young fly-half and there’s no doubting he has the talent to go far. At just 20 years old he’s more than comfortable taking the ball up to the line and has a creative spark, but he does need to improve his general leadership of the back line. As well as that he’s not been blessed with the biggest frame leading to a few defensive frailties, mainly tackling technique. However, with plenty of years ahead of him there’s nothing that can’t be worked on.
Looking to join the three fly-half candidates and challenge Lloyd Williams for the number nine jersey are three more than capable scrum-halves. First up Lewis Jones is about to begin his seventh season at the Arms Park having been released by the academy and then re-signed after impressing for Pontypridd. He is on 86 overall appearances since then having spent most of the second half of last season as second chance to Williams.
This was a surprise to a lot of people, me included, as most expected Welsh international Tavis Knoyle to be in the primary position for second choice, and indeed he was the replacement for Lloyd during the World Cup. However he didn’t do much to impress in the period, lacking some speed from the base of the ruck and vastly over-using the tap-and-go penalty to waste a few good positions. The fact though that a player of Knoyle’s quality is battling it out for the second choice shows the competition we currently have at scrum half.
Rounding off the scrum-half ranks is a player, like Jarrod Evans, with a huge future in a Cardiff shirt. Tomos Williams has been tipped for the top by a number of people in the Welsh game after some impressive performances towards the end of last season. Unfortunately for him 2015/16 was not quite the full breakthrough season it was hoped to be after a pre-season injury, making this upcoming year a big one.
There’s no doubt he has the speed of delivery from set pieces and the breakdown to go with speed of foot to snipe around the fringes, he’s very much in the Lloyd Williams mould of a scrum half. However, to go with that he has a wicked step meaning he has plenty to offer outside of scrum-half duties. With more game time and experience his reading of the game and speed of delivery will only increase giving him a real chance of international honours in the future.
Not looking too shabby overall in the half-back department. International and Pro12 experience galore with plenty more to look forward to. Injuries generally seem to target this area of the squad but if we can avoid them, particularly Gareth Anscombe, I think an exciting season of back play is in store as there’s plenty of quality outside them, starting with the centres next up. Come on Cardiff!!
With the front row and lock all profiled it’s time to finish off the forwards with the back row, historically where Cardiff have been strongest since 2003. Martyn Williams, Xavier Rush, Robin Copeland and Dan Baugh have all been involved before the current crop, leaving some big shoes to fill indeed.
As things stand though the back row class of 2016/17 is certainly living up to expectation, at least on paper. Starting at the top they are lead by current Wales and British & Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton at flanker, the first of two Cardiff players to hold a National Dual Contract. The terms of that restrict him to just 16 appearances a season, but it’s generally not a problem between international windows and well timed injuries.
Last season it was the eight Cardiff appearances to take him up to 92 overall, just 26 more caps than he has at international level. Of course Sam is an undoubtedly high quality player, but is it worth disrupting a settled team every time he needs to get a bit of game time pre-internationals? I’m not so sure. Anyway, after a disappointing summer with Wales he may actually be fit for the start of the season so hopefully we can get our full compliment of games out of him.
Ready waiting in the wings to challenge Warburton at both club and country is Ellis Jenkins. After a fantastic 2015/16 season, which was capped off with the Cardiff Rugby Life’ Player of the Year Award, Jenkins was called up to Wales’ summer tour of New Zealand making his debut of the bench in the first test.
Despite being only 23 this will already be Ellis’ fifth season of senior rugby and he looks set to add many more Cardiff caps to the 62 he has already won. An almost complete package of a player with incredible work ethic, top defensive and breakdown skills, plus the ability to produce a cheeky offload, he will be a key figure in the upcoming season, and hopefully for many more to come before Wales come calling full-time.
The third member of Cardiff’s Wales back row trio is Josh Turnbull, although unfortunately the big man has been resigned to tackle bag holding since his recall to the national set up for the 2016 Six Nations. From a biased point of view I would say he deserves a bigger role than that after some impressive performances since signing from Llanelli in 2014.
It will be interesting to see how Turnbull is utilised this year with a number of back row options and a distinct shortage of senior second rows. It is no secret that Turnbull prefers to play at flanker and in fact left Llanelli because he was being used a lock too much, but he is undoubtedly an excellent number 4 and may well be required to step in from time to time.
Joining him in the ranks of part-time lock from the back row will be Macauley Cook and Cameron Dolan. Both players filled in at second row during the course of last season and are both equally adept at blindside flanker as well as number 8. Cook is now into his seventh season at the Arms Park and three appearances of his 100 cap. Although he’s not likely to ever trouble the international scene, he is the type of solid Pro12 player that the squad needs a base of to challenge throughout the season.
Dolan on the other hand is at international level for his home country the United States and appeared in both their summer tests. He didn’t have the easiest first seasons in Cardiff making just eight appearances, and only four starts, restricted mainly to A team and Cardiff RFC outings. However, I was impressed particularly by two appearances at lock towards the end of the season and I hope he’ll get more of a chance this year.
Providing the battle for the number eight jersey this year will be an established Cardiff favourite and a very experienced new signing. New signing Nick Williams arrives from Ulster to provide compeition for Josh Navidi after Manoa Vosawai’s exit and with two very contrasting options in the position the scope for the team’s style widens.
We of course all know what Josh Navidi is about as the academy graduate is set to enter his eighth season and add to his 116 appearances. The dreadlock wearing back rower is all-action, making tackles, hitting rucks and gaining yards all over the field. A flanker by trade he is an asset at the breakdown while his transformation to number eight has been aided by a willingness to take the ball into contact and speed into space on the other side of a defensive line.
Williams though is more of a cultured eight. He’s the size you’d expect of the man at the back of the scrum, with a huge tackle in him but less proficient at the breakdown. He’s also more than happy to smash through contact with ball in hand. However his difference comes in the shape of some All Black flair and he is adept at the offload from a tackle, drawing men in and creating the space. A very exciting new signing indeed as long as he stays injury free.
Looking to learn off Williams and Navidi, as well as the other back row experience, is youngster James Sheekey. After a 2015/16 season plagued by injuries which restricted him to just five Cardiff RFC games all season I don’t think many expected him to arrive in the senior setup over the summer. However Danny Wilson obviously sees something in him and at 6’5″ and 18st while not yet 22 years old he was the physical make up of a good eight.
It will be interesting to see Sheekey’s development in what is a strong back row line-up for this season. Fingers have to be crossed for not too many injuries or international call-ups in the second/back row department as where they cover each other we could end up short, but the quality in the players we do have is undoubted. That’s the forwards over and done with, now onto the backs…
So after looking at the front row last time out it’s now time to move onto the big boys at lock. There’s been a bit of a clearout amongst the second row ranks over the summer as Lou Reed, Chris Dicomidis and Miles Normandale have all moved on, but between new signings and talented youngsters we’re not in too bad of a position.
The longest serving lock in their current spell at the club is one of our non-Welsh qualified players, Jarrad Hoeata. Into his third season the three-cap All Black appeared 21 times last year taking his total to 39 overall. It’s fair to say that he didn’t particularly win over a lot of the fan base in his first year with no real stand-out performances and some disciplinary issues on the pitch.
However last season was an improvement on that as a consistent campaign and much better discipline record saw fans warm to him, especially through his work with the supporters club. A strong partnership with James Down aided that as they bonded well together in the middle of a largely dominant pack throughout Danny Wilson’s first campaign.
Down himself is now into his 10th season at the Arms Park across two spells after returning last year from London Welsh. He had a very solid returning campaign as a good lineout jumper and thrived under Wilson’s focus on the driving maul. As a willing ball carrier he’s a good option in the line, but he’s never a huge yard maker.
At the same time he’s not particularly agile meaning he’s somewhat stuck in the middle of a heavy second row and a ball playing second row. That’s not to say he’s a bad player though, he’s a good Pro12 player which is exactly what we’ve been lacking between internationals and no-hopers over the years. At 29 he’s still at the peak of his rugby career and I’m sure he’ll add plenty of caps to his current 89.
In a bid to add some weight into the second row ranks that is lacking amongst Hoeata and Down, Danny Wilson has brought in George Earle from one of his former clubs Llanelli. An out-and-out number five he will provide some power in the scrum and maul, as well as a go-to ball carrier. In his playing style and appearance he’s a typically physical South African, just as you’d expect.
Signing for Llanelli in 2012/13 from Super Rugby he went on to make 92 appearances during his time at Parc y Scarlets, and also gained his Welsh-qualified status having played in Wales for three years. Earle’s departure has slightly split opinions down West as his playing ability is undoubted, but an especially injury prone last season plus the arrival of David Bulbring and Rynier Bernardo mean he isn’t seen as a massive loss.
Although the signing of Earle has boosted the second row ranks, the departure of the Dicomidis, Reed and Normandale means it’s just the three natural locks in the senior squad for 2016/17. There are however a number of back row players who will be profiled fully in the next blog of the series, but that are worth mentioning here. Cameron Dolan, Macauley Cook and Josh Turnbull are all capable of covering lock and did so throughout last season at various points.
Dolan in particular may be used in the second row often after some impressive performances there towards the end of the last campaign, while many think Turnbull starting at four with the three flankers of Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi and Sam Warburton in the back row forms our best selection, something I very much agree with.
The other option to cover the second row is the academy squad and there are two exciting prospects waiting to get a chance in the senior side. Both Seb Davies and Shane Lewis-Hughes were involved in the Wales U20 Junior World Championship squad over the summer and actually lined up as the lock partnership in three games, while Lewis-Hughes moved to flanker for another.
Davies is the most natural second row of the two, standing at 6’6″ and weighing over 17st. He has appeared in the Premiership 7s and LV Cup squads, scoring a try over Wasps in that amazing comeback win in 2014/15. He did make one A team appearance last season in a friendly against Ospreys but suffered a nasty shoulder injury which kept him out until April. He returned to help Pontypridd to the Premiership Final but missed out on a Pro12 debut.
At 19 Lewis-Hughes is a year younger than Davies and as such has not had exposure to senior rugby as yet. The Coleg y Cymoedd student has been part of the successful rugby setup there though and appeared at Cardiff U18 level. In terms of his future he certainly has the height to play lock, but the weight will be the question as he develops. He could be a handy number four to Davies’ five, but may be better suited to flanker, a season in the Anglo-Welsh and British-Irish Cups will help decide that.
Overall while the senior options are good in the second row, they are limited in the quantity of natural players for the position. Danny Wilson will be hoping to avoid any injury crises in the lock or back row areas which could well leave us very short on the ground. Exciting academy prospects, like in the front row, make for a bright future and it will be interesting to see how they get on in senior professional rugby.
The new season is very close to coming around, and after revealing that he wanted to work with reduced squad in 2016/17, Danny Wilson has followed that through by letting 21 players go that have featured for Cardiff in senior rugby.
Alongside making seven new signings and promoting a number of academy players to join the senior squad full-time the playing staff has changed drastically from last season. As with every summer, this series of articles will have an in-depth look at each position and provide some information on each player.
The men in the number one shirt seems a good place to start, and when it comes to loosehead props in Cardiff, or in Wales for that matter, there is only one name that comes to mind, Gethin Jenkins. The club captain will start his 12th season at the Arms Park in the coming campaign, split up by a season at Toulon, and has been awarded a testimonial year benefiting #StayStrongForOws and the NSPCC.
Although he will turn 36 in November Melon is showing no signs of slowing up on the pitch as he looks to improve on his 169 appearances for Cardiff, of which 15 came last season, and 126 Wales caps. Having won his Wales test place back in New Zealand over the summer Gethin has made no secret of his desire to add to his five British and Irish Lions caps back in NZ next year, meaning he will need to have a big season in blue to prove himself worthy of the Lions jersey.
Of course it goes without saying that Jenkins can benefit the young looseheads in the squad, but as the club captain he can set an excellent example for all the younger members off the field as well as on it. When he’s fit and firing there is nobody in the rugby world who would leave Gethin out of their playing squad but it’s important that Wilson does not overuse him to avoid burnout, and also to give those younger players a chance.
Joining Jenkins in the loosehead ranks next season will be Rhys Gill as the academy graduate returns to the Arms Park after seven years away. Graduating into the senior ranks for the 2005/06 season he only made six first team appearances, mainly playing for Cardiff RFC where he reached the 50-cap mark. Frustrated by a lack of first team rugby he moved to Saracens in 2009.
Gill was a huge hit in London, making over 130 appearances while winning three Aviva Premierships and a European Cup. During this time he also won six Wales caps, but with Gatland’s Law biting he has decided to move back home to increase his international selection chances and start a company with former Cardiff and Bristol player Ross Johnston.
At 29 Cardiff can certainly continue to benefit from a Rhys Gill in his prime and I think he will be a terrific asset to the squad throughout the season and for a good few years to come. The battle for the number one shirt at club and country level will be interesting between Gill and Jenkins, but sit back and enjoy it as it only can work out well for us.
Looking to push for loosehead selection are young players Brad Thyer and Corey Domachowski. Both have followed a similar career path to this point, joining the Cardiff Blues academy, gaining Wales youth honours up to U20 level and going from a Pontypridd RFC allocation to the Cardiff Blues senior squad last season. Thyer though, at 23, is three years older than Domachowski and as such made nine appearances to Corey’s one last year.
Despite being of the same rugby generation they are drastically differing players. Domachowski is a unit, he’s 6ft+ and 18st, a prop moulded in an old fashioned manner who is a strong scrummager and big carrier. Thyer on the other hand is lighter which, although doesn’t make him weak in the scrum, means his carrying and handling skills are his main asset and aids our attacking game.
Moving on to the middle men in the front row and again starting with the experience as Matthew Rees prepares to turn 36 and start his fourth season in the capital. For the second summer running he has been awarded a one-year contract extension and after 18 appearances last season to take his overall caps to 52 it’s probably the correct decision.
Like Gethin Jenkins, Rees has been there and done it at all levels with 60 Wales caps and a former captain of the country, as well as over 170 appearances for Llanelli. He does need to be game managed to retain the match fitness and allow the waiting youngsters a chance to shine, but there’s no doubt Smiler can continue to be a key player in 2016/17, and develop into a top coach beyond that.
Generally the first choice hooker over the last three seasons or so has been Kristian Dacey. He’s been a reliable performer in that time despite not being the strongest scrummager as he makes up for it with his open play work, managing to bag 13 tries in 96 appearances. Dacey will be entering his 7th season with Cardiff and at just 27 is set to break the 100 cap mark and go well beyond.
Despite these consistent performances for Cardiff over the last few years Dacey has never really got any Wales recognition as Scott Baldwin and Ken Owens have switched the hooker role between them. Kris has been mainly resigned to tackle bag holding duties which is a shame given his ability around the field, but perhaps understandable as both rivals are better at scrum time.
Brought in to challenge Dacey for the starting hooker spot is Kirby Myhill who joins Cardiff from Llanelli. Having made his debut down west in 2011 he went on to make 72 appearances at Parc y Scarlets but has recently found his playing time diminished by Ken Owens and the emergence of Emyr Phillips, triggering his attempt at a fresh start at the Arms Park.
Danny Wilson knows Myhill well as he made the hooker captain of his Wales U20 team at the 2012 Junior World Championships where the young Welsh team finished third, beating New Zealand’s Baby Blacks along the way. He obviously still rates the 24 year-old to sign him now for Cardiff and if there’s one thing we learnt from last season it’s ‘in Danny we trust’.
Looking to challenge the three senior players are two young hookers fresh from making their mark at Wales U20 level. Ethan Lewis graduated the junior Welsh set-up two years ago now and has gone on to make 26 appearances for Cardiff RFC in that time. He also tasted professional rugby for the first time last season making three starts and eleven substitute appearances in the Pro12 and Europe.
Two years behind Lewis having just finished with the Wales U20s after a Junior World Championship campaign is Liam Belcher. Despite having only just turned 20 years old he has made a number of Pontypridd appearances on the way to winning and losing a Premiership Final and will likely be looking at the BIC and Anglo-Welsh teams next season as a stepping stone to the senior squad.
Both players have generated some very excited whispers from inside the Arms Park and certainly contribute to what is a strong line-up at hooker for the coming season. With Rees providing the experience, Myhill and Dacey both tried and tested Pro12 hookers and Lewis and Belcher highly rated youngsters, every demographic is covered and the position is set to be strong for a few years to come.
To continue the trend in this front row report of starting each position with the experienced player, the tighthead I will start with is the one and only Fa’ao Filise. Despite turning 39 at the end of last season he managed to make 21 appearances overall, playing over 1000 minutes and taking his total caps to a Cardiff Blues record of 217. As a result of this he has been rewarded with another year contract.
The King of Tonga will now go into his eleventh season with Cardiff and still appears to be as fit as ever, providing a go-to ball carrying ability and seriously strong scrum. He will be battling it out with Salesi Ma’afu for the number three jersey this season as the Australian international attempts to return to the matchday squad after missing the end of last season.
Despite signing last December from Toulon, Ma’afu had to wait until the end of January for his debut, going on to make six straight starts but never making it past 50 minutes. He looked heavy and very unfit in that time but hopefully after a full pre-season and no disciplinary issues he will be a big asset to the side, as on his day he is a world class tighthead. At 33 he still has a few years left in the tank and certainly has experience to pass on to the younger players.
Serving as a back-up to the southern hemisphere tightheads will be Scott Andrews, starting his 9th season with Cardiff. Despite being a long-serving member of the squad and currently on 119 caps, as well as 12 Wales appearances under his belt, many thought last season may have been his last in the capital as he made just four substitute appearances all season.
He has however been retained for the last year of his contract, likely because of his ability to cover hooker and lock in absolute emergencies. As well as that I think Andrews is a contender to lead the A side in the BIC and Anglo-Welsh Cup, as an experienced fringe member of the squad he would be suited to this role, and spending a lot of time with the players likely to be in those teams while playing for Cardiff RFC.
As with loosehead prop and hooker, there are two exciting youngsters waiting in the wings to challenge for the tighthead position. Both Dillon Lewis and Kieron Assiratti were involved with the Wales U20 squad at the Junior World Championship over the summer, and particularly Lewis played a big part. Both have also impressed while spending time with Pontypridd early in their careers and have earned many plaudits amongst those on the Arms Park inside.
Lewis in particular has been getting people talking after making 13 appearances in his debut season last year and looking very assured for a 20 year old in the Pro12. A strong scrummager and very impressive carrier he looks to be the complete package and some are even tipping him to be involved with the senior Wales setup before 2016/17 is over.
Assiratti on the other hand is a year younger than Lewis and will mainly look to impress in the A side this season, but if both can reach their full potential then there are many great years ahead at tighthead. With two exciting young players in each front row position at Cardiff the future is looking very bright indeed, and with Wales U20 naming a full Cardiff front row on two occasions at the Junior World Championship then the senior team will certainly benefit too.
Overall I’d describe Cardiff’s front row options on the whole as very healthy. With Ben Leung having signed for Cardiff RFC over the summer as well who can cover both sides of the scrum, there is definite strength in depth. Of course the team must be picked on form first, but it will be interesting to see how Danny Wilson uses the young players as they will need exposure to professional rugby. If there was ever a man to whip a front rower into shape though it’s Wilson.
So that’s the big men done and dusted, next up is lock…