The first Welsh derby of the year is upon us as Cardiff Blues travel West down the M4 to Swansea on Friday night for an encounter with our perennial bogey team, Ospreys.
You have to go back to October 2009, almost seven years to the day of this week’s game, for the last Cardiff Pro12 victory in this fixture. That day it was tries from Tom James and Gareth Cooper, as well as kicks from Ben Blair and Sam Norton-Knight, that secured a 20-12 win at the Cardiff City Stadium.
There has been an Anglo-Welsh Cup win in the meantime to break the run of straight losses in all competitions, but as that is more of a second string tournament it doesn’t offer much reassurance. Even with that win, 10 straight Pro12 losses and no wins in 13 is a very poor record to have and one that really needs to be fixed soon.
There is an extra dimension to the game this year as, for the first time for a long time, both teams are up challenging at the top of the Pro12 table after the first five games of this season. Of course we know Cardiff are 4th after the loss to Leinster last week, but Ospreys are just behind in 5th.
After three straight bonus point wins at home to both Italian sides and in Connacht, they have stuttered with two tricky trips to Ireland in recent week. A tough loss in Leinster was followed by a narrow defeat at Ulster last weekend, although they can take heart from stopping the league leaders scoring a try.
They will be looking for a return to form, as will Danny Wilson’s men after Saturday’s 13-16 defeat to the Dublin side at the Arms Park. With that being Cardiff’s first loss of the season it will be interesting to see what sort of reaction we get from the players, especially after losing in the fairly controversial circumstances surrounding the performance of referee Dudley Phillips.
Of course we’ll be hoping for a backlash with the players putting everything into defeating Ospreys and maintaining a top four spot, and I am hopeful of that after the back end of last season. We saw the side recover from tough losses such as at Christmas, where defeat at Montpellier was followed by a double over Newport and Llanelli, in February, where defeat to Glasgow sparked four straight wins, and Easter, after losing to Ospreys at Judgement Day we recovered to beat Edinburgh away.
For our visit Ospreys have made just one change to the side that narrowly lost 9-7 out in Ulster last week, but it is a big one. Head coach Steve Tandy has made the decision to replace Wales fly-half Dan Biggar with youngster Sam Davies after some impressive performances early this season.
The only other squad change comes as replacement back row Tyler Ardron is injured so an extra back in Ashley Beck is called up, although it’s still a very strong Ospreys bench with Wales internationals Paul James and Scott Baldwin waiting to be introduced alongside Biggar.
Cardiff’s team meanwhile has been hit by the injuries picked up against Leinster meaning three enforced changes are made, with one tactical replacement also seeing Garyn Smith coming in for the out of form Cory Allen.
Matthew Morgan is only fit enough for the bench with Dan Fish returning to the starting XV while George Earle and Sam Warburton are ruled out altogether as Macauley Cook and Josh Navidi start in their places.
With a smaller pack up against the big hitters of Ospreys it will be key to move the home side about as much as possible and encourage the backs to return to the free-flowing attack of the first here weeks if we are to come away from Swansea with anything. Danny Wilson’s set piece genius will also need to be at the top of it’s game.
So a massive game on Friday night at the Liberty Stadium, and one that could be a real tone setter even relatively early in the season. I really would not like to predict a result for this one, but I know now more than ever we as fans require real effort from the players. There must be a thinking behind it too, defensive sets have to be tighter and attacking patterns better managed.
But it all comes down to who wants it more on the night and I hope the confidence taken from early season results, the togetherness and commitment of the group and the burgeoning bond between players and fans will pay dividends as the boys do us proud and come out on top. Now more than ever, come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff record vs Ospreys: W 8 D 1 L 20
Cardiff form: WWWWL
Ospreys form: WWWLL
Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (3)
Ospreys top try scorer: Sam Parry (3)
Cardiff top points scorer: Gareth Anscombe (34)
Ospreys top points scorer: Sam Davies (31)
Nigel Owens (WRU) – Well it’s a neutral referee! ‘Showtime Nige’ largely splits opinion amongst the rugby public. In general terms, more casual fans love him and his quick wit, while the more serious amongst us find it all a bit too much. Having said that when it comes to decision making there’s not much wrong done by Owens, let’s just hope it doesn’t descend it The Nigel Show.