Ahead of Cardiff Blues’ away game at Zebre on Saturday there are some decisions to be made in the weekly selection meeting over what sort of team should be taken out to Northern Italy.
I have had a number of discussions this week on Twitter about whether changes should be made to the team. The thinking behind it being that we have had three tough games in three weeks, and are set to go into a run of Leinster (H), Ospreys (A), two European pool games and Scarlets (H) in the next month.
Of course many Cardiff fans are naturally nervous as our recent record against Zebre, or in Italy generally, has not been fantastic. Since Zebre joined the league in 2012 we have played 16 games in total against the two Italian sides, winning nine, drawing one and losing six. Five of those six losses have come on Italian soil meaning we’ve won just three times out there.
However, it’s important to remember those were different times. The Phil Davies regime wasn’t exactly one that will go down as a great period in Cardiff rugby history, while Mark Hammett never really got going before leaving the club after seven months.
During the debates on Twitter there was plenty of pointing to last season’s result out in Zebre where we went down 26-15 to the Italian sides. Again though the circumstances must be taken into account. We were right at the beginning of Danny Wilson’s tenure as head coach, it was the fifth straight away game and, having just come off the back of four losses in Ireland, confidence was at a serious low.
The matchday 23 last October included nine players no longer at the club, two players in Garyn Smith and Ethan Lewis who were new to senior professional rugby at the time, Blaine Scully who was making his debut, and finally Lloyd Williams and Tom James who were returning from six weeks away at the World Cup.
Now of course none of that is an excuse for losing out in Zebre in the manner we did, but it goes a little way to explaining it. Fast forward a year though and it’s a totally different story, the squad is a tight knit set-up and the matchday 23 has been pretty settled as we have played our way to three wins from the opening three Pro12 matches for the first time since the league came into existence as we know it.
Those wins have come at a price though as, especially the last two weeks in Munster and at home to Glasgow, there has been a brutal 160 minutes of rugby. It has taken a huge amount of effort to see out the victories in both games, with big defensive shifts in both weeks. That has started to take it’s toll on the squad as Dan Fish (ankle) picked up a knock in Munster, while Alex Cuthbert (groin) and Gareth Anscombe (cut head) were forced off against Glasgow.
So the debate has come around about who should be playing and it’s a tricky one. There’s the camp that says make as minimal changes as possible, keep the momentum going and ensure we take the Zebre game as seriously as possible to get the win. I can certainly see the thinking behind that, confidence is high so keep it so and with the dropped points in Italy last year costing us a top six finish then we need to get maximum scores in all four games.
I’m in the camp of making changes to the team though. There’s bound to be some tired legs in that line-up, and with a few players like those named above nursing knocks it is a good chance to properly rotate the squad. Many may go back to the reasons above for not messing with the team, but what I’d say is that we have a good standard of strength in depth now. In fact, you could name a pretty decent looking completely different XV from that which started against Glasgow;
D. Fish, B. Scully, G. Smith, S. Shingler, A. Summerhill, J. Evans, T. Williams; R. Gill, E. Lewis, D. Lewis, J. Down, J. Hoeata, M. Cook, C. Dolan, N. Williams
Obviously I know that this would never be the starting XV, and I’m not suggesting it should be, but the fact that all of this players are in reserve and are all capable of playing well in the first team shows the strength in depth we now possess.
With this in mind I’d be more than happy to leave a few players at home this weekend who could do with some game time management. Gethin Jenkins and Fa’ao Filise spring to mind in the front row, George Earle at lock, as well as Ellis Jenkins in the back row. Into the backs, Rey Lee-Lo has started every game so far, as has Cory Allen and Tom James.
Now I’m not saying drop all of these players, but Gethin, Fa’ao and Earle are priorities to rest while Lee-Lo has done some really hard yards and looked to come worse off from a collision with Glasgow’s Peter Horne last week. In terms of the NDC players, Gareth Anscombe picked up a pretty nasty head cut last week and Sam Warburton’s game limit suggests that resting both players would be better in the long run.
With this in mind, if I was forced to pick a team for Saturday I would go with something like;
M. Morgan, B. Scully, C. Allen, G. Smith, T. James, S. Shingler, T. Williams; R. Gill, M. Rees/E.Lewis, D. Lewis/S. Andrews, M. Cook, J. Down, J. Turnbull, J. Navidi, N. Williams
C. Domachowski, M. Rees/E. Lewis, S. Andrews/D. Lewis, J. Hoeata, C. Dolan, L. Williams, J. Evans, A.Summerhill
A fair few changes, including a new tight five, but a retention of some in-form players in Navidi, James and Nick and Tomos Williams. I do believe that team is more than strong enough to get a point out in Zebre, they are players more than capable of winning Pro12 matches and also some who need to prove a point after missing out on the opening games of the season.
There’s also some young players looking for a chance in there as well as some steady experience to keep them in check. There’s plenty of attacking quality and no particular weak link in defence, while the pack should more than match that of Zebre’s.
Of course it all comes down to Danny Wilson at the end of the day, and right now there’s nobody I trust more than him and his team of coaches to select the best squad to take out to Zebre. Four wins from four anyone? Come on Cardiff!!