The Guinness Pro12 returns to action this weekend as Cardiff make the difficult trip over to Dublin to face the league leaders, three weeks after a home defeat to Munster effectively ended realistic hopes of qualifying for the top six.
With the big Challenge Cup quarter-final only a week away it is easy to get distracted by the thought of the day out to Gloucester, but this weekend will be very important in terms of some playing staking a claim for a starting spot at Kingsholm, as well as the recovery of match fitness and a chance to fix some errors that bugged throughout the last set of four fixtures.
There is also the small matter of revenge to deal with as well, as the home defeat suffered at the hands of Leinster that ended our unbeaten start to the season still leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Some distinctly suspect refereeing, including the awarding of a try that should never have been, claimed us not only of our 100% record, but also of our confidence that has ultimately left us where we are now.
Our opponents on the other hand have seen a vastly different season trajectory since the first fixture, winning ten of twelve Pro12 games to go two points clear at the table summit, while also having a home Champions Cup quarter-final against Wasps at the Aviva Stadium to look forward to.
Four bonus point wins from four during the Six Nations block of fixtures really showed them flexing their strength in depth muscles, and leaves them in a fantastic possession to push for both domestic and European honours as the season draws to a close.
Cardiff though have, for the first time in a while, really impressed in the pre-match media. The message from Danny Wilson, Lloyd Williams and Gareth Anscombe has really been one of pressure off. No aims have been set for this Pro12 fixture block, performance is the key, and the focus has been on just certain areas of the game. Baby steps are required.
Over the last few months where the injuries have mounted the results have fluctuated there has still been an element of pressure applied from the coaching staff, and the players themselves, to improve the performances, when perhaps just concentrating on performance levels were required, so to now see an acceptance of our floundering position oddly becomes a positive.
That’s not to say I don’t care completely about the result, a decent performance but still on the end of a hammering does nobody any good. On paper at least, we should be able to compete with this Leinster side, although if the season had been played on paper we’d be in a lot better position than we are now!
Leo Cullen has been able to call on some returning Irish internationals as Cian Healey and Dan Leavy pack down, as does Josh Van Der Flier who returns to fitness. James Tracy, Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery are also back involved after bit part roles with Ireland during the Six Nations.
Leinster will be without their big name internationals though as the likes of Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Sean O’Brien, Jonny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are rested ahead of their European clash next week, while Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney have returned from the Irish camp with injuries.
Elsewhere we see highly rated youngster Adam Byrne on the right wing, Cardiff’s persistent nemesis Isa Nacewa on the opposite flank and controversial try scorer in the reverse fixture Rhys Ruddock starting at number eight in a Leinster outfit that has seven of the starting XV on over 70 provincial caps.
Leinster: Joey Carbery, Adam Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin, Noel Reid, Isa Nacewa (c), Ross Byrne; Luke McGrath, Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Michael Bent, Ross Molony, Hayden Triggs, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock
Replacements: James Tracy, Peter Dooley, Mike Ross, Mick Kearney, Max Deegan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Tom Daly, Fergus McFadden
Danny Wilson is also able to welcome back some of his internationals, with Kris Dacey and Alex Cuthbert free to start and Scott Andrews on the bench. Sam Warburton doesn’t join them though as he is rested after playing every minute of Wales’ Six Nations campaign before the Gloucester game.
The big team news though is from the replacements bench, where Gethin and Ellis Jenkins return to the matchday squad. In Ellis’ case it’s for the first time in almost three months, since the Glasgow away fixture, while Ulster at home at the beginning of December was Gethin’s last appearance. Very well timed comebacks ahead of next week.
Other changes to the team that lost to Munster see Blaine Scully, who will captain the side, return to the team on the left wing, Rey Lee-Lo takes Willis Halaholo’s spot at outside centre, while Tomos Williams gets his long awaited opportunity to usurp Lloyd as the starting scrum-half.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan; Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Steven Shingler, Blaine Scully (C); Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Corey Domachowski, Kristian Dacey, Anton Peikrishvili, George Earle, Jarrad Hoeata, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Nick Williams
Replacements: Matthew Rees, Gethin Jenkins, Scott Andrews, Sion Bennett, Ellis Jenkins, Lloyd Williams, Willis Halaholo, Tom James
Overall it’s a competitive looking side, and to have options off the bench is a luxury we have certainly not been afforded in a long while now. It’ll be a big ask of the pack to match their Irish counterparts, but if they can do that I certainly believe our backs at least match those of Leinster’s.
Danny Wilson has talked about targeting certain areas of the game. Of course he didn’t reveal exactly which areas those were, but I’d like to think that the set piece was certainly one of them. It would be good to have a really high accuracy rate across the scrums and lineout, and most importantly be able to utilise attacking set pieces either through driving mauls or good first phase attacking ball.
The development of quick ball will also be of importance, something we struggled with against Munster as we lost the battle at the breakdown. Big ball carrying performances are required, while a shift from the tight five is needed to secure the quick ball for the backs. If we can improve on these areas, while keeping our recent level in defence, then the signs will be encouraging.
Whilst I’m not expecting too much from the game, I want to be left feeling positive ahead of the much anticipated trip to Gloucester next week, so let’s have an encouraging performance and, most importantly, no injuries!
Cardiff record v Leinster: W 5 D 2 L 20
Leinster form: WWWWD
Cardiff form: LWWLW (Not including AW Cup)
Leinster top try scorers: Isa Nacewa, Adam Byrne (9)
Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)
Leinster top points scorer: Isa Nacewa (153)
Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (190)
George Clancy (IRFU) – A late change for Marius Mitrea who has pulled out through illness. Very much a sideways move!