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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
Season preview: Cardiff Blues
By Bruce Pope
BBC Sport

BLUES PREDICTIONS
Gethin Jenkins is one of several important additions to the Blues' pack
Celtic League: 5th
Celtic Cup: Quarter-final
Heineken Cup: Group stage

Cardiff Blues have benefited more than any other Welsh region from the sad, sorry and very messy closure of the Celtic Warriors.

Coach Dai Young must have thought all his Christmases had come at once, as his underpowered pack gained Wales caps Gethin Jenkins, Deiniol Jones, Robert Sidoli and Nathan Budgett.

However, this silver lining of former Warriors had a cloud hovering not too far away, as last season career-ending neck injuries struck prop Spencer John and lock Andy Moore.

Even Budgett has got it in the neck, suffering the injury in the pre-season friendly with Worcester, and he is doubtful for the start of the season, while Sidoli is also touch and go as he recovers from surgery on a pelvic problem.

The other huge benefit for the Blues from the Warriors' demise was entry into the Heineken Cup, taking their spot despite finishing last of the Welsh sides in the Celtic League and seeming destined for the European Challenge Cup (the Parker Pen without sponsorship).

Yet after the draw for the pool stage, Young will have to make a vow to stop walking under ladders and kicking black cats as they cross his path.

There always seems to be one 'Group of Death' in any competition and - somehow predictably - the Blues are in it, with Stade Francais, Ulster and Gloucester providing the tough opposition in Pool 6.

Nick Robinson has continued to improve at outside-half
Nick Robinson has continued to improve at outside-half

The Blues managed two wins at home last season and it's difficult to see much more success this term, even with the new recruits on board.

Things look a bit brighter in the Celtic League as Welsh teams dominated last season, with only Ulster breaking the monopoly in the top half of the table.

But the Scarlets, Dragons and Ospreys have all strengthened as well, with recruiting lists heavy on former Warriors.

Perhaps success for the Blues will best be measured by overhauling one of the other Welsh regions - the Ospreys or Scarlets look their best bet - to avoid the Challenge Cup as of right the following year.

However, the Newport Gwent Dragons will have to readjust under rookie union coach Chris Anderson - who does have a rugby league World Cup to his name - and could take time to meld an admittedly powerful set of squad additions into a fully functioning team.

The Llanelli Scarlets have lost talisman Stephen Jones to the lure of the Euro and Montferrand, and will miss the Wales outside-half's calming influence - not to mention his kicking accuracy - when matches get tight.

The Blues backline remains as exciting as ever, even with Iestyn Harris deciding that the proper number of players on each side should be 13 and moving back north to join the Bradford Bulls.

With Pieter Muller and Matt Allen also departed for pastures new, it's all change in the centres.

TRANSFER STORIES

Shaun James, Tristan Davies and Freddie Tuilagi will all compete with Jamie Robinson and Tom Shanklin for the No 12 and 13 shirts, while Matthew Nutthall will augment an already potent back three.

The ace-in-the-hole remains Nick Robinson, who advanced his claim for the Wales fly-half spot with a good showing on the summer tour.

However, with Harris gone, there is a worrying hole behind Robinson at No 10 should injuries and international calls bite, although Nick Macleod and Lee Thomas have made names for themselves at Under-21 level.

The acid test will come during the international season, when Test calls will provide a serious examination of the Blues' strength-in-depth.

Most at risk seems to be the backrow, with only Martyn Williams at openside offering reliable quality, although the signing of US Eagles skipper Kort Schubert will help.

Dan Baugh's creaking knees are unlikely to allow him to play consistently, while an operation on his foot rules him out of the start of the season.

There are talented youngsters such as James Malpas - currently recovering from shoulder surgery - and Robin Sowden-Taylor, but they don't yet have the nous and 'dog' of most of the backrows they will face.

But the Blues backrow also seems to lack bulk and height, with only Budgett - at 6ft 5in and 17st - seeming to possess the necessary combination.


In: Gethin Jenkins, Deiniol Jones, Lee Thomas, Robert Sidoli, Mark Lewis, Shaun James, Matthew Nutthall, Nathan Budgett (all Warriors), Tristan Davies (Leeds), Freddie Tuilagi (Leicester).

Out: Pieter Muller (player-coach, Doncaster), Jim Brownrigg (Bristol), Matt Allen (Bedford), Andrew Moore (scrum-half, retiring), Andy Moore (lock, retiring), Iestyn Harris (Bradford Bulls RFLC), Darren Crompton (Bristol), Martyn Madden (Caerphilly RFC), Donovan van Vuuren (Doncaster).

Captain: Martyn Williams
Coach: Dai Young
Assistant coach: Geraint John
Team colours: Blue, black and white
Chief executive: Robert Norster
Ground: The Arms Park




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SEE ALSO
Blues expect Euro struggle
29 Jun 04  |  European Club
Heineken Cup 2004/5
29 Jun 04  |  European Club



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