By Paul Williams
THE EXODUS of senior Welsh players to the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 has meant that the Welsh Regions have been forced to make good use of their academies. Eli Walker, Harry Robinson, Rhys Patchell and Samson Lee are just a snippet of those talented youngsters who made an impression last season. So which young players should we keep an eye on this coming season?
Region Cardiff Blues Position Centre DoB 11/2/1993 Height 6ft 3in Weight 15st 8lb
I have my suspicions that the Cardiff Blues are operating a genetic cloning project in the bowels of Cardiff Arms Park. No sooner has Jamie Roberts vacated the club then they wheel out Cory Allen – 6ft 3in and 15st 8lb at the age of 20. However, Allen isn’t simply a crash-ball 12 – there’s more to his game than that. Crash-ball centres don’t survive long on the sevens circuit – Allen scored the official Try of the Tournament in this year’s Hong Kong Sevens. Whilst Allen is able to truck the ball up in the 12 channel, he has also demonstrated an effective offloading game and a promising passing game. Whilst it is too early to compare Allen to Roberts, the early signs look favourable.
Region Newport Gwent Dragons Position No 8 DoB 22/07/1993 Height 6ft 2in Weight 16st 1lb
The Dragons are in an enviable position when it comes to No 8s. Not only do they have one of the world’s leading Test players in Toby Faletau, they also have Ieuan Jones as his understudy. Although Jones is still 20, he was part of this year’s U20s squad, which made the final of the Junior World Cup, and his limited appearances for the Dragons have been of ‘senior’ standard – and a very good senior standard at that. Jones’s blend of short carries from the base and deeper carries in the wider channels are effective and his work ethic is reassuring. The Dragons unearthed two fine back-rowers in Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau; with Ieuan Jones, they may have done it again.
Region Ospreys Position Wing DoB 22/03/1995 Height 6ft Weight 15st 1lb
It seems a little premature to be talking about Dafydd Howells’s potential career. After all he’s only 18 years old (I have a jumper that’s older than him!). However, it’s hard to ignore his ability. Howells has all of the attributes that you would expect from a modern winger. He is 6ft, 15st-plus and has Test-level speed over 40 metres. However, his most desirable attribute is his ability to change direction without losing momentum – few players have that skill and those that do often excel. Howells’s rise through the ranks has been rapid – he has only played nine games of senior rugby, five for Neath, two for the Ospreys and two for Wales. There is little evidence to suggest that his career will slow this season – the lack of ‘genuine’ wings at the Ospreys mean that Howells could feature prominently, particularly during the international windows.
Region Cardiff Blues Position Centre DoB 2/10/1991 Height 6ft 2in Weight 15st 1lb
Owen Williams is a rare find, and not just for Cardiff Blues and Welsh rugby – Williams is a rare find for rugby as a whole. He’s a 13. A real 13. Not a ‘smaller’ 12 who has been shunted out into the wider channel. Williams is an outside-centre who looks for, and has the ability to make, the outside break. A 13 who can find space on the outside is invaluable to any team facing claustrophobic ‘out-to-in’ defensive systems. It is also worth noting that whilst Williams has the ‘refined’ characteristics required by a classic outside-centre, he also has the ‘unrefined’ qualities required in a modern defensive skill-set – his tackling is rock-solid. Williams should receive plenty of game time this season at the Blues and the Arms Park’s new fast, stable, 4G pitch should help accentuate his skill-set.
Region Scarlets Position Full-back/outside-half DoB 20/09/1993 Height 5ft 8in Weight 12st 10lb
Jordan Williams is arguably the most exciting young talent in Welsh rugby and whilst there is still some debate as to whether he is best suited to full-back or outside-half, there is no debate regarding the effectiveness of his offensive skill-set – he beats so many players that it almost qualifies as GBH. In a modern game dominated by contact, not cunning, Williams’s footwork and lateral movement, combined with an immaculate distribution and offloading game, set him apart. Williams’s performances in this year’s Junior World Championship were, at times, mesmerising, and his ability to beat the first tackler and gain 15 yards was a major factor in Wales U20 making the final. But perhaps the greatest indicator of Williams’s potential is the praise that he has received from the media – the New Zealand media. We, in Wales, are eager to build up a future star, often with little justification, but praise from the Kiwis is praise indeed.