The pool stages of this season’s Challenge Cup draw to a close on Saturday as Cardiff Blues welcome Severnside rivals Bristol to the Arms Park with hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals still very much in our own hands. With a bumper crowd expected for an un-televised Saturday afternoon kick-off, and a strong home XV, it’s got all the makings of a cracking day.
For Cardiff the equation is simple. Win and we’re through. Winning the group is unlikely, with Bath needing to lose at home to a second string Pau for that to happen, but a best runners-up squad is still in our grasp. There is a chance to qualify with a loss, if Newport fail to win in Brive, but a solid win would be much easier to watch.
From there our opponents depend on La Rochelle and Harlequins, if either lose, against Treviso and Stade Francais respectively, then we will face Gloucester, if both lose we will play Bath, and if both win then it will be Ospreys. As a runner-up the game will definitely be on the road, but a win would bring us back to CAP for a big home semi-final, what an occasion that could be.
Anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, there’s still the small matter of Bristol to get out of the way, and they will be a bigger test than when we visited Ashton Gate in October. On that night it was a bonus point victory as Alex Cuthbert, Tom James, Rey Lee-Lo and Josh Turnbull all crossed during a 20-33 win during a particularly tough period, results-wise, for our opponents.
However, since then there has been a resurgence of sorts, which means that although they are still bottom of the Premiership, they are at least in touch with their relegation rivals. Losing bonus points in the league against Bath and Leicester were followed by two wins over Pau in the pre-Christmas double header and subsequently wins over Worcester and Sale.
A losing bonus point away at Northampton rounded off a successful festive period, but they were brought back down to Earth with a bump last week as their European hopes were ended with an eight try loss at home to Bath.
Interim Head Coach Mark Tainton has named a side with eleven changes from last week’s heavy defeat, as he looks to give some fringe players a chance to prove their worth. With twelve changes from the last XV that turned out in the Premiership it’s an indication of a second string squad, but also of the depth available to the West Country side, something Danny Wilson can only dream of in his injury crisis!
Having said that, there’s still a fair bit of international experience in David Lemi, Tusi Pisi, Gaston Cortes, Giorgi Nemsadze and Jack Lam, while Thretton Palamo is joined by Welsh caps Ian Evans and Martin Roberts on the bench.
Bristol team: Luke Arscott, Jordan Williams, Jack Tovey, Tusi Pisi, David Lemi, Adrian Jarvis, Andy Uren; Jack O’Connell, Rob Hawkins, Gaston Cortes, Joe Joyce, Giorgi Nemsadze, Nick Koster, Jack Lam (c), James Phillips
Replacements: Max Crumpton, Kyle Traynor, Jamal Ford-Robinson, Ian Evans, Nick Fenton-Wells, Martin Roberts, Thretton Palamo, Jack Wallace
Cardiff meanwhile actually have had quite a positive week on and off the pitch. A win over Pau, albeit a tight one, stopped a rot of two straight defeats, and the last-gasp aspect of the victory is one that gives you the feeling of confidence, unlike the disappointment that the performance in the win over Newport gave off.
Mix that confidence with some good news from the medical room and suddenly it makes Saturday’s game a very exciting prospect. Danny Wilson is able to welcome back six players from last week’s unavailable list for a real timely boost.
Those six players come into the squad as part of nine changes that sees an all-new front row of Rhys Gill, Kris Dacey and Anton Peikrishvili pack down ahead of Macauley Cook joining Jarrad Hoeata at lock. In the back row Nick Williams makes a second return from injury at number eight.
The returning half-back pairing of Lloyd Williams and Gareth Anscombe will hope to re-ignite their partnership, with Rey Lee-Lo giving Willis Halaholo a rest this week at 13. Alex Cuthbert returns from the bench and Blaine Scully from family matters to take their places on the wings.
I would go as far to say that it’s the strongest starting XV named since the glory days of September, and although the bench is stocked largely with youngsters, the squad should have more than enough to get the job done.
Cardiff team: Matthew Morgan, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Steven Shingler, Blaine Scully, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams; Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey, Anton Peikrishvili, Jarrad Hoeata, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Sam Warburton (c), Nick Williams
Replacement: Kirby Myhill, Corey Domachowski, Scott Andrews, James Down, Seb Davies, Tomos Williams, Garyn Smith, Rhun Williams
This will not be an easy task as Cardiff look to secure the in required for qualification, as Bristol will be hurting from last week’s heavy loss and looking for revenge, while the fringe players will be wanting to make their mark and press for more minutes.
However, I think the way we start the game will be crucial. We have a few players coming back into the team after injuries of various lengths, but if they can kick on early and get a nerve settling try or two then we can go on to put Bristol to the sword.
From there it’s anyone’s guess who we would play in the quarter-finals, but we can look no further than getting our end of the bargain sorting before dreaming of European quarter-finals. It’s about time we turned out a serious performance and put a team away convincingly.
The support from the fans has been excellent this season, as the radio dominating vocals showed in Pau last week, and with a bumper crowd expected, let’s put on a show. There’s no first team games until the 12th February after Saturday, time to set the tone for 2017.
Cardiff record v Bristol: W 3 L 0
Cardiff form: LWLLW
Bristol form: WWWLL
Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)
Bristol top try scorer: Tom Varndell (10)
Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (129)
Bristol top points scorer: Jason Woodward (55)
Mike Adamson (SRU) – Former one-cap Glasgow Warrior and Scottish 7s international has only recently made the step to full-time XVs rugby refereeing. Just the two Pro12 outings to his name and will make his European debut on Saturday after calling Stade Francais’ game against the Romanian side off in suspicious circumstances last week.