European action returns this weekend as Aviva Premiership side Bath make the short trip across the Severn Bridge to the Arms Park. With both sides unbeaten so far this double header will go some way to deciding the pool outcome.
Cardiff find themselves slightly ahead of the West country side at the moment courtesy of a bonus point win over Bristol at Ashton Gate, with Bath gaining regular wins against their close rivals and French side Pau. However with only the group winner going through automatically these next two Anglo-Welsh ties are crucial.
Away from Europe, Bath are challenging for silverware in domestic terms as well, with a run of five wins in six matches taking them to third place and just three points off the top spot. After a disappointing season which saw them finish 9th last year it is a marked turnaround under the guidance of former New Zealand international Todd Blackadder.
That run culminated in an impressive win over reigning Champions Saracens at The Rec last weekend, thanks to a Max Clark try and the boot of Tom Homer. A confidence boosting win for sure, although the effect of that will hopefully be diluted with Blackadder making seven changes to the starting XV this week.
Wales internationals Taulupe Faletau and Luke Charteris both miss out, as five of the changes come in the forwards, although new England cap Charlie Ewels is included. In the backs Darren Allinson starts at scrum-half, the first time he’s faced Cardiff since leaving for London Irish in 2010.
With Anthony Watson, Robbie Fruean, George Ford, Rhys Priestland, Kahn Fotu’ali, Matt Banahan, David Denton and Dave Attwood all also unavailable or not picked for selection, it is certainly an under-strength side coming to Cardiff, but not one to be under-estimated.
Bath team: Tom Homer, Semesa Rokoduguni, Max Clark, Ben Tapuai, Jack Wilson, Dan Bowden, Darren Allinson; Beno Obano, Ross Batty, Max Lahiff, Charlie Ewels, Elliott Stooke, Matt Garvey (c), Tom Ellis, Paul Grant
Replacements: Jack Walker, Nick Auterac, Kane Palma-Newport, Guy Mercer, Michael van Vuuren, Will Homer, Adam Hastings, Jeff Williams
If that unavailable list seems long then it’s nothing compared to Cardiff’s! Fourteen players are currently injured or otherwise not able to play, with a particularly worrying stat being that six of those are back-rowers. Newly injured players include Macauley Cook, Josh Turnbull, Ellis Jenkins and Tom James, with the extent of their injuries unknown, while Gethin Jenkins will be out for weeks rather than months after an arm operation.
The only piece of good news from the team announcement is the return of Sam Warburton to lead the side from 7. He is joined in the back row by Seb Davies who will make his first start outside of the Anglo-Welsh Cup. Rhys Gill comes into the front row to complete the changes up front, while Brad Thyer and Jarrad Hoeata return to the bench, and Kirby Myhill is forced to provide back row cover.
In the backs the only change comes as a result of top try scorer Tom James’ injury, with Matthew Morgan starting to allow Blaine Scully to move to the wing. Lloyd Williams may count himself lucky to retain his starting scrum-half spot as Tomos Williams really begins to push him but stays on the bench, joined by Cory Allen, as the centre looks to re-start a confidence lacking season.
Cardiff team: Matthew Morgan, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Blaine Scully, Steve Shingler, Lloyd Williams; Rhys Gill, Kris Dacey, Fa’ao Filise, George Earle, James Down, Seb Davies, Sam Warburton (c), Josh Navidi
Replacements: Matthew Rees, Brad Thyer, Scott Andrews, Jarrad Hoeata, Kirby Myhill, Tomos Williams, Nicky Robinson, Cory Allen
So a somewhat makeshift aspect to the side, with a big test for Davies at flanker and a challenge for some players to step their form up after a mediocre few weeks, but it’s certainly a side that can still be competitive despite the injury list.
And competitive they need to be because there’s more than an aspect of revenge to this game. Rewind to the 1997/98 Heineken Cup quarter-final at The Rec. French referee Didier Mene rules out a perfectly good Craig Morgan try, allowed Victor Ubogu’s clearly offside try and also awarded Bath a whole host of penalties on the way to a 32-21 win.
The two sides haven’t played for the 19 years between but the thirst for revenge never leaves! Come on Cardiff!!!!
No games since 2003
Cardiff form: WLWLL (excluding Anglo-Welsh Cup)
Bath form: WWWLW (excluding Anglo-Welsh Cup)
Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)
Bath top try scorer: Semesa Rokoduguni (6)
Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (69)
Bath top points scorer: George Ford (85)
George Clancy (IRFU) – He did referee our win over Glasgow at CAP in September, but there’s a general collective moan when Clancy appears. All I’ll say is good luck keeping everyone’s voices!