After a month off due to European and Anglo-Welsh action, the Guinness Pro12 returns to life this weekend as Cardiff Blues welcome Connacht to the Arms Park early on Sunday afternoon. Despite being during the Six Nations, Danny Wilson has still been able to name a strong side and knows that wins are now absolutely crucial in the hunt for sixth place.
It is always a strange time of year to be a fan of club rugby in the northern hemisphere as the Six Nations does completely dominate the landscape in terms of TV, radio and social media coverage, but often this time of year is when the really important results occur in terms of shaping how the run-in will look to the Pro12 season.
When you have teams like Munster and Leinster, who despite being hit hard by Irish call-ups can still perform well thanks to such terrific strength in depth, going up against the likes of Glasgow and Ospreys, who are decimated by call-ups from Scotland and Wales, respectively, it creates a massive imbalance in the league and is unfair to an extent.
However, until World Rugby get serious on a global season calendar, then this is what we’re stuck with and actually, and keep this to yourselves, it doesn’t half benefit Cardiff this year. With just Sam Warburton being in line to make the starting 23 week-in, week-out, and Alex Cuthbert on the fringes, we’re really only losing two players on the basis that Cam Dolan does not really feature and any U20s are able to be released for Pro12 games.
This could be a massive positive for us as we look to take advantage of other team’s international induced weaknesses and stake a last-ditch claim for the all-important sixth place. Six points behind Ulster, and giving up a game in hand, it will take a massive upturn in form to challenge, but retaining the vast majority of our players during the Six Nations gives us a great chance.
We’re at a point where one defeat could spell disaster if other results went against us, but after two European Challenge Cup wins to qualify for the quarter-finals we should be able to take confidence, and with games against Treviso and Edinburgh, both below us in the league, and Munster, hit by Ireland call-ups, to come, I am confident we can kick on.
Sunday’s opponents Connacht are also below us in the league, but are afforded a similar luxury to ourselves in that they are only minimally impacted by international call-ups around this time of year, and in fact many suggest that’s one of the contributing factors to the Irish province’s run to the Pro12 title last season during a World Cup year.
There is one big motivational factor for Sunday’s game aside from the sixth place battle, which is the simple fact that we owe Connacht a performance after the reverse fixture at the end of November. An 18-7 win was strewn with errors and started a run of games whereby we were throwing away matches due to our own inaccuracies, rather than losing due to the quality of the opposition.
That game also started the great winter injury crisis of 2017, and as such it’s time to assert some revenge on rugby fate and give the Galway based province a good old Cardiff Arms Park hammering.
Connacht have named a fairly strong side of their own for the trip to Wales, and an experienced one at that. Only two of the starting XV are under 10 appearances, with eight players over 50 appearances, three over 100, and one of those, John Muldoon, will lead the side whilst winning his 293rd Connacht cap. They’re not a team to be underestimated in that respect.
Irish international trio Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy start in the back three, although they will lack the firepower of Bundee Aki in the centre and scrum-half Kieran Marmion. In the forwards they can rely on Denis Buckley to anchor the scrum, with Muldoon at eight, but they are lacking Ultan Dillane who is with the Irish Six Nations Squad.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Stacey Ili, Craig Ronaldson, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, John Cooney; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, JP Cooney, Quinn Roux, James Cannon, Sean O’Brien, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (c)
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Ronan Loughney, John Andress, Naulia Dawai, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Caolin Blade, Tom Farrell, Danie Poolman
Danny Wilson meanwhile has matched the strength of his counterpart Pat Lam, naming Welsh internationals Matthew Morgan, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams, Rhys Gill and Josh Navidi in the starting line-ups, as well as Kris Dacey and Rhun Williams who have been released from their respective representative squads.
Samoan international Rey Lee-Lo continues his partnership with Steve Shingler in general, while Blaine Scully returns from a try-scoring time on USA national team duty to complete the back three. Georgian international Anton Peikrishvili is preferred to Scott Andrews at tighthead, while James Down and Jarrad Hoeata form the second row pairing.
Ellis Jenkins is still suffering from a head injury, so Macauley Cook starts at blindside, while on the bench the medical issues mean Marc Thomas and Sion Bennett could make their Cardiff Pro12 debuts after short-term signings from Jersey and Northampton respectively. Matthew Rees and Seb Davies complete the forward replacements.
The really big team news though is that Tom James is back! After being unavailable since before Christmas our top scorer returns to the bench and is part of some very strong backs options, as he is joined by Tomos Williams and Willis Halaholo, all three who could really take advantage of some tired Connacht legs on our plastic pitch.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Blaine Scully, Rey Lee-Lo, Steve Shingler, Rhun Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams (c); Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey, Anton Peikrishvili, Jarrad Hoeata, James Down, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Nick Williams
Replacements: Matthew Rees, Marc Thomas, Scott Andrews, Seb Davies, Sion Bennett, Tomos Williams, Willis Halaholo, Tom James
Almost exactly five years to the date that we returned to CAP after the Leckwith exile, with a 22-15 win over Connacht, there’s a nice full circle aspect to this match, and I really fancy a heavy win to get this season back on track at long last. It’s do or die time, and we have an excellent chance to come out on top.
Let’s get back to September, as the second half of the season properly begins. Quick, direct attacking play is what I want to see in abundance. If the defence stays solid, as it has been recently, it sets the platform for attack, and with the backs we’ve picked accuracy should not be a problem. In short, I want to see a bonus point win. Come on Cardiff!
Cardiff form: WLLWW (excluding Anglo-Welsh Cup)
Connacht form: LLLWL
Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)
Connacht top try scorer: Niyi Adeolokun (5)
Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (129)
Connacht top points scorer: Jack Carty (96)
Marius Mitrea (FIR): Usually a groan goes around when the Italian/Romanian’s name is seen but generally we have him away from CAP, and as one of the biggest homer referees in the league, we could be in luck on Sunday!