Richard Hodges has praised the invaluable contribution of Rey Lee-Lo, after the centre was named in the Guinness PRO14 Dream Team for the second season running.
The Samoan joins Casey Laulala, Jonathan Davies, Brian O’Driscoll and Stuart McCloskey in an exclusive club of centres who have been named in multiple Dream Teams.
According to Hodges, Lee-Lo, who made his 100th Cardiff Blues appearance in December, has become a real leader in the changing room and believes the latest accolade is a testament to his quality and all-round game.
“We wouldn’t swap him for any other 13 in the competition, and that’s true on both sides of the ball. He seems to be getting better with age,” said the Cardiff Blues assistant coach.
“He was a player who would always lead by example but in the last 12 to 18 months, and certainly since he came back from the World Cup, he’s been much more of a voice around camp.
“He speaks infrequently, but when he does speak you can hear a pin drop in the room.
“He’s played at the highest level, both domestically and internationally, and I think everyone is very respectful of him and his family.
“I don’t think there’s a player in the squad that has more respect from players and staff than Rey.
“Very few players will get into the Dream Team two years on the trot. When you think of the quality of the other 13s in the league - people like Gary Ringrose and Chris Farrell over in Ireland and Nick Grigg and Mark Bennett up in Scotland, as well as boys like Jonathan Davies and Owen Watkins here in Wales - and for Rey to consistently get above them is a huge credit to him as an individual.
“He’s very diligent and very professional. As I’ve said, he doesn’t say an awful lot but on a game day, the feedback from the players is that he’s one of the loudest on the pitch.
“When it’s time to go to work, he gets to work.
‘He’s the type of player who can change a game, on both sides of the ball. He hits extremely hard.
“I spoke to Jamie Roberts recently, and when he played against him he hadn’t realised how much of a ferocious defender he can be.
“From an attacking point of view, he has the ability to constantly step out of tackles, and with the firepower that we have on the wings, they certainly benefit from playing with him.
“Defensively, I probably wouldn’t swap him for any other outside centre in the northern hemisphere.
“He’s somebody who understands our system, and that system is very much based around players like himself and Willis. They like to hit people, so you build your system around the skill-set of your players, and both of them are a part of that.
“He’s come back into training this week and straight away you can see the impact that he has on the group.”
The 34-year-old has been a key figure in the region’s midfield since his move to the Welsh capital in 2015, picking up the Peter Thomas Player of the Season award in 2017 and becoming a firm favourite on the terraces.
Hodges says Lee-Lo plays a key role in guiding the next generation of young Arms Park centres - such as Mason Grady, Ben Thomas, Harri Millard and Max Llewellyn - and is excited to see the Samoan back in action when the 2020/21 campaign kicks off.
“The boys who are trying to get that 13 shirt are very understanding of the ability and potential that Rey has, and while it maybe be hard to get that shirt they know that there’s an awful lot that they can learn from him,” added the former Wales under 20 coach.
“He doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and post-lockdown has probably added a couple of years to his career too.
“He’s fit, he’s firing and he’s ready to go. We can’t wait to unleash him again.
“Culturally, he wants to be a part of Cardiff Blues and he can see where this group has the potential to go.
“He’s very humble and down to earth, but he also knows what this group can achieve with the depth that we’ve finally got.
“I know he particularly enjoys playing with the likes of Jarrod and Tomos and he can see a big future for us.
“As a coach, your rule of thumb is that your non-Welsh qualified players have to be your best players. Rey certainly fits into that category.
“When our internationals are away, we’re even more reliant on him and that win in Treviso, with the offload to Jason in the last minute, sums up the impact he can have on games.
“The opposition will have his head on a plate in terms of making sure that they’re very aware of him.
“Whoever is his opposite number, defensively will be doing an awful lot of work that week in terms of tackle technique and not letting Rey step out of tackles.
“He’s got a bit of a goose step where he can come out of the other side and poke his nose through. He’s obviously someone the opposition would fear, as would most of our backs.”