The Six Nations set of Pro12 fixtures is finished off with Cardiff Blues welcoming Pro12 high-flyers Munster to the Arms Park on Saturday, before the league takes a three-week sabbatical ahead of the season run-in.
Danny Wilson has spoken a fair bit over the last few weeks about the requirement to take three wins from the four matches that make up this set, and after the opening defeat to Connacht at home, this weekend’s fixture becomes somewhat must win as sixth place is somehow still achievable, although Champions Cup rugby may not be. That is for another time though.
On the back of last week’s victory over Edinburgh there should be a confidence amongst the squad, especially in the manner of the win. Coming back from 17-6 down was impressive, but not even close to the 37 phase defensive set that lasted the closing five minutes of the match and secured the four points. The performance will have to reach another level to keep up with Munster however.
The Irish side have been flying this season, losing just four games across domestic and European competition and currently sitting third in the Pro12, with a home Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulouse in the offing.
Saturday’s visitors have lost just once on the road in the league this season, away to Leinster at the Aviva, while a surprise home defeat at the hands of the Scarlets last weekend was the first loss in nine games for the Munstermen, although one of their early losses did of course come against Cardiff in Cork back in September.
Obviously many circumstances have changed since then, notably Cardiff going from a real rich vein of form, where we dominated Munster up front and did not let them live with our counter attack, to an injury hit side lacking any sort of confidence.
Munster on the other hand have been inspired, and it would be remiss of me not to mention Anthony Foley in the first meeting between the sides since his unfortunate passing. A great coach, player and, most importantly, man. Someone who really epitomised the loyalty and passion that club rugby can create, and a great loss to not only the province, but to the rugby world as a whole. RIP Axel.
Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus has been hit hard by Ireland call-ups, with eight players retained by Joe Schmidt ahead of the follow-up to this weekend’s Wales v Ireland clash. Munster do benefit from Dave Kilcoyne, Tommy O’Donnell and Andrew Conway being released at least, as they make five changes to the starting XV that came away empty handed from the Scarlets clash.
Jaco Taute and Rory Scannell form a new centre partnership, while Ian Keatley replaces the rested Tyler Bleyendaal in the backs. Up front, Darren O’Shea comes into the second row for the ill Dave Foley, while former Cardiff favourite Robin Copeland returns to fitness and starts at eight.
Munster: Andrew Conway, Darren Sweetnam, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Ronan O’Mahony, Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer, Darren O’Shea, Billy Holland (c), Dave O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, Robin Copeland
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Peter McCabe, Brian Scott, Fineen Wycherley, Conor Oliver, Abrie Griesel, Dan Goggin, Francis Saili
Meanwhile Cardiff haven’t been hit to quite the same extent as their opponents, but are still feeling the impact of Kris Dacey, Scott Andrews, Sam Warburton and Alex Cuthbert being retained by Team Wales. With only Sam in with a shout of featuring against Ireland it may seem bizarre to be without his three colleagues, but Rob Howley has retained all on the basis that they are back in camp on Sunday.
Matthew Rees is brought in to replace Dacey, Fa’ao Filise takes Andrews’ place on the bench while Aled Summerhill will make his first Pro12 start of the season as he fills the gap left by Cuthbert rather than Blaine Scully, who failed a late fitness test.
Changes elsewhere come in the form of Corey Domachowski, who gets the nod at tighthead with Rhys Gill injured, while Josh Navidi returns to fitness and will start at openside with Sion Bennett dropping to the bench where he is joined by Marc Thomas and Rhun Williams.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Aled Summerhill, Willis Halaholo, Steven Shingler, Tom James, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams (c); Corey Domachowski, Matthew Rees, Anton Peikrishvili, George Earle, Jarrad Hoeata, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Marc Thomas, Taufa’ao Filise, James Down, Sion Bennett, Tomos Williams, Garyn Smith, Rhun Williams
The forward battle will be huge on Saturday, and will essentially decide the game as whoever is able to lay the best platform for their talented backline will undoubtedly be in the driving seat to taken home the spoils. Josh Navidi’s return is very welcome as, despite some excellent try scoring form from Sion Bennett, we have missed the breakdown work of a natural openside.
Set pieces will need to be tightened up somewhat if we are to properly compete, with the lineout a potential issue. Matthew Rees’ throwing often leaves something to be desired in attack, as does the formation of our driving maul. The defending of that very same area has been hideously woeful and the best thing to do would be to avoid that, but we should at least take some solace from a strong scrum.
Steve Shingler could well be a key man at inside centre, as it seems recently than when he plays well so does the time. Having a footballer at 12 who is not afraid to run a crash ball line has been a revelation, and it certainly takes the pressure off both Gareth Anscombe and Lloyd Williams with another receiver option to be used, while Willis Halaholo outside him benefits from an extra yard of pace.
Munster will no doubt be hurting from both losing to us in the reverse fixture, as well as that defeat to Scarlets last week, but if Cardiff can capitalise on their emerging confidence and make a fast start then maybe we can cause some problems. From there it could well be a repeat of that defensive effort against Edinburgh to get anything out of the game.
A massive game this weekend, so let’s get down to CAP in numbers and really get behind the boys, as the team spirit and pride in the jersey shown last week deserves to be recognised. It’s make or break now, and a top six will really make this season a success. Come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff record v Munster: W 11 L 16
Cardiff form: WWLWW
Munster form: WWWWL
Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)
Munster top try scorers: Jaco Taute, Ronan O’Mahony (8)
Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (182)
Munster top points scorer: Tyler Bleyendaal (175)
Mike Adamson (SRU) – Only the former Scottish 7s international’s fourth Pro12 game, but will be his third involving Munster, with two previous home wins for them over Newport and Treviso. Not his first visit to CAP though, refereed our bonus point victory over Bristol in January, and did it very well.