The first ever Guinness Pro14 fixtures were finally released on Tuesday as Celtic Rugby got their act together and let fans know when their teams will be playing just 24 days before the season will start.
With the introduction of South African sides Cheetahs and Southern Kings to the league there has been a change of structure, with two conferences of seven teams being setup. Every team will play their respective conference sides home and away, the teams from the opposite conference home or away and two extra derbies to make up 21 games.
Despite it being all change in the makeup of the league, there’s familiar opponents for Cardiff Blues on the opening day of the season as Edinburgh visit the Arms Park to kick the season off on Friday 1st September with a 7:35pm start.
The same game was the curtain raiser of last season, with Cardiff running out 34-16 victors with a try bonus point. That win made it three wins in a row on the opening day, and also kicked off a four-game winning streak that took us to the dizzy heights of second come the end of September.
It’s a similar four opening games in general, with a trip to Leinster, rather than Munster this season, before welcoming Glasgow to CAP in round three and finally travelling to Connacht, one of the few teams to finish below us, in round four.
An away game in Munster to finish September means it’s a tricky month of three Irish away trips to begin the season, but on a positive note there are no more games on the Emerald Isle for the rest of the campaign.
October sees us move to Welsh derbies, first welcoming the newly WRU-owned Dragons to CAP before the European pool games, and then travelling to Scarlets at the end of the month. Despite this game being on the same weekend as last year’s match without our respective internationals, a later Autumn series start date means it’ll be a fully loaded encounter this year.
A testing festive period encompasses trips to Dragons and Ospreys, as well as hosting the Turks, but there’s an encouraging Six Nations period where we will play both the Italians during that weakened time.
Cardiff have to wait until April to travel to South Africa, where we will face Kings and Cheetahs on a mini-tour, before coming home to finish the regular season against the Ospreys at yet another Judgement Day.
All in all it’s a fixture list that Danny Wilson will probably be quite happy with. There’s nicely defined phases of the season and, although some are undeniably challenging, there are periods which can really be targeted for points.
If we can stay in some kind of contention up to the middle of January then that January-March phase is a friendlier looking part of the campaign. Ahead of a tough last month it has to be an objective not to leave gaining points until the task of going to South Africa for two weeks.
There will be interesting decisions in terms of how seriously to take the Challenge Cup campaign, with the first two pool games coming between two Welsh derbies, while the European weeks in December and January are either side of the three festive derbies.
Wilson will have to play a balancing act between maintaining momentum and ensuring the squad is rotated effectively so as not to burn players out. A tough ask indeed.
Onus should be placed on the players to assist with that as, although we retain a 50-man strong senior squad, we can’t afford to be carrying anyone form-wise. Young players will need to perform beyond their years, and the senior players will need to lead by example.
For fans it will be tricky. The kick-off times, especially for the first few months of the season, are far from family friendly. However, playing at the Arms Park under the lights is like no other ground. It’s up to us to help the players make our historic home a fortress.
For now though we can finally get properly excited for the new season. Things are moving towards 2017/18, and in rugby, particularly with the Cardiff Blues, anything is possible. Who knows, we might be able to look at some of those knockout games towards the end of the season? Come on Cardiff!!