The second of the Welsh festive derbies takes place on New Year’s Day as Cardiff Blues travel down the M4 into Carmarthenshire and to Parc y Scarlets for the game with Llanelli. On the back of a Boxing Day win over Newport there’s sure to be a burgeoning confidence in the camp, but I’m sure the players are well aware of the improvement required.
For the first 40 minutes at the Arms Park it was a largely solid performance. A fantastic individual finish from Steven Shingler, who finished with 17 points on the day, kick started the scoring which was added to by Kris Dacey and Josh Navidi. However, the second half failed to build on the exciting first with 40 minutes of 0-0 action.
On a performance level there were positives from Cardiff who saw a vastly increased defensive shift pay off, as well as individual showings from the likes of Shingler, Dacey and the returning Nick Williams coming up trumps. However an ongoing case of white line fever only seemed to worsen as we chased a try bonus point.
As we reflected on a distinctly underwhelming derby win, Llanelli were having a slightly worse time of it at the Liberty Stadium as they went down 19-9 to local rivals Ospreys. Despite much being written about Scarlets pack, including the all-Wales front row, it was ripped to shreds by an Alun Wyn Jones inspired opposition.
Two yellow cards for dragging down mauls, and a further one for a high tackle, did not help the Scarlet cause, while Dan Biggar was in good form off the tee. Llanelli’s woes were compounded by carrying along a woefully out of form Liam Williams, and seeing DTH Van Der Merwe go off injured, as their attacking threat diminished.
There’s more than a suggestion that the loss last week was due to fatigue following a tough few weeks for Llanelli. Hard fought victories at home to Leinster and away at Zebre following the Autumn Internationals led into a Toulon double header in the Champions Cup, where a narrow loss in France preceded a famous win at Parc y Scarlets.
After a tough opening few weeks to the season, recent form has really transformed their fortunes to leave them fifth in the Pro12 and third in their Champions Cup pool, but still with an outside chance of qualification for the knockout rounds.
With an extra days rest and players coming back after some recent time off injured, Danny Wilson will certainly be hoping his Cardiff players are fitter than their Llanelli counterparts. However, Scarlet boss Wayne Pivac has moved to bring in fresh legs for New Year’s Day with seven changes.
Plenty of big names are amongst the casualty as Pivac reverts to the players who were in-form before the internationals returned from Team Wales, with Liam Williams, Gareth Davies, Rob Evans and Ken Owens miss out, alongside DTH Van Der Merwe, Hadleigh Parkes and Aaron Shingler.
In their places Aled Thomas starts at full-back, with Steff Evans on his wing. Jonathan Davies starts at centre and namesake Evans is in the nine shirt, while in the forwards, Wyn Jones is at loosehead alongside hooker Ryan Elias, with Lewis Rawlins coming in at lock to allow Tadhg Beirne to revert to flanker.
Llanelli team: Aled Thomas, Johnny McNicholl, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams (c), Steff Evans, Rhys Patchell, Jonathan Evans; Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias, Samson Lee, Jake Ball, Lewis Rawlins, Tadhg Beirne, Will Boyde, John Barclay
Replacements: Emyr Phillips, Rob Evans, Werner Kruger, Tom Price, Josh Macleod, Gareth Davies, Dan Jones, Hadleigh Parkes
Cardiff meanwhile are only arriving with two changes to their starting XV as there is less requirement to chop and change the lineup in anyway, due to form and injury. Fa’ao Filise’s weight is preferred to starting at tighthead over Scott Andrews, who drops to the bench, while Rhun Williams returns from a foot stress fracture to start on the left wing ahead of Cory Allen who also starts amongst the replacements.
Tom James, who was hospitalised with illness last week, is still missing, as is Blaine Scully and Josh Turnbull among the other mysteriously injured senior players. One player mysteriously involved though is Lloyd Williams are more than enough weeks of indifferent performances, while Tomos Williams continues to look on from the bench.
Cardiff team: Matthew Morgan, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Rhun Williams, Steve Shingler, Lloyd Williams; Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey, Taufa’ao Filise, Macauley Cook, James Down, Josh Navidi, Sam Warburton (c), Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Brad Thyer, Scott Andrews, Jarrad Hoeata, Ellis Jenkins, Tomos Williams, Nicky Robinson, Cory Allen
Recent form suggests it won’t be easy for Cardiff away at Llanelli, with a record of five losses in six league matches at Parc y Scarlets, and we all remember the 15-26 defeat at CAP back in October.
However, there is confidence to be taken from the fact that the only win in recent years in West Wales came at the end of last season thanks to a 22-28 win for a Gareth Anscombe inspired Cardiff Blues.
On that day our pack dominated the park, allowing the backs to play freely and run ragged to score three very good tries and manage the game to a close. Exactly what didn’t happen back in October as Llanelli blitzed us early in the game, going 0-14 up inside 15 minutes, before referee Andy Brace offered little assistance as Cardiff tried to exert scrum power.
The big issue though in October was the missing blindside flanker trio of Josh Navidi, Sam Warburton and Ellis Jenkins really giving us little presence at either attacking or defending breakdowns, while Nick Williams absence also offered a decreased ability to effectively carry.
Now though, with all four players back either starting or on the bench, coupled with a similar tight five that was the far best scrummagers in October, we will hopefully be able to solidly compete up front and allow the backs the best chance of overcoming the white line fever.
The first of two tricky away trips for Cardiff coming up, with Glasgow away waiting next week, that will define how much work needs to be done in the second half of the season to qualify for the Champions Cup. It won’t be easy, but the players do have the quality to get a decent haul of points from both games, they just need to believe in themselves.
Come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff record v Llanelli: W 17 L 10
Llanelli form: WWLWL
Cardiff form: LLWLW
Llanelli top try scorers: DTH Van Der Merwe, Jonathan Evans (5)
Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)
Llanelli top points scorer: Rhys Patchell (142)
Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (102)
Nigel Owens (WRU) – Showtime Nige himself will be the star of the show of course! Has refereed eight straight losses now for Cardiff in the Pro12, the last win coming in Munster in January 2013. Nevertheless, none of those games have been against Llanelli and Nige seems to hate the Turks as much as he does us!