Round four of the 2017/18 Guinness Pro14 sees Cardiff Blues make their second trip to Ireland in as many weeks, this time travelling to Galway to take on Connacht.
After last week’s narrow 19-20 defeat to Glasgow at the Arms Park, there is a feeling that now is the time to register a first league win of the season, with improvements being made to the performance every week since the disappointing opening day loss to Edinburgh.
Level on points with Zebre at the bottom of Conference A, Cardiff are in danger of slipping behind the rest of the teams in the top half of the table, with Connacht set to go at least 8 points ahead of us if they win on Saturday afternoon.
They currently sit third on six points, courtesy of a losing bonus point against Glasgow in round one being followed up by a bonus point win over Southern Kings the following week at the Sportsground.
However, they slipped to a 21-8 defeat to Dragons at Rodney Parade last week and will be determined to put that right in front of their own crowd and the Sky Sports cameras.
It will be a psychological battle as much as a physical one for Cardiff Blues, as we overcome the memory of Connacht doing the double over us last season, courtesy of a 13-19 win at CAP and an 18-7 scoreline in Galway.
In fact, Cardiff haven’t won at the Sportsground in just over the three years now. You have to go back to May 2014 when Lewis Jones and Dan Fish tries helped us to a 15-22 victory.
To help extend that winning run, Connacht have recalled a number of front line players who missed last week’s trip to Newport, as new head coach Kieran Keane continues to experiment with his squad.
The former Waikato Chiefs assistant coach has named Irish internationals Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane in the tight five, while new signing from the Brumbies Jarrad Butler starts at flanker.
Another Super Rugby recruit, Andrew Deegan from Waratahs, makes his Connacht debut at fly-half and is partnered by Irish cap Kieran Marmion at half-back, while Rory Scholes starts on the wing.
Connacht: Darragh Leader, Cian Kelleher, Bundee Aki, Craig Ronaldson, Rory Scholes, Andrew Deegan, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux, Eoghan Masterson, Jarrad Butler, John Muldoon (c)
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Denis Coulson, Conor Carey, Gavin Thornbury, Eoin McKeon, Caolin Blade, Tom Farrell, Stacey Ili
After last week’s much improved performance against Glasgow, Cardiff Blues head coach Danny Wilson has tried to leave the squad alone as much as possible, choosing only to replace the front row in the starting XV.
Brad Thyer, making his first Pro Rugby start since March 2016, Kris Dacey, returning from a pre-season groin injury, and Fa’ao Filise, who has recovered a knock to the knee, will pack down as Kieron Assiratti drops to the bench, while Matthew Rees and Rhys Gill are rested completely.
Hooker Ethan Lewis is included in a matchday squad for the first time this season, while Corey Domachowski joins him on the bench, as does Olly Robinson who could make his Cardiff Blues debut having joined on loan from Bristol this week.
Cardiff Blues: Rhun Williams, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Tom James, Steve Shingler, Lloyd Williams (c); Brad Thyer, Kristian Dacey, Taufa’ao Filise, Seb Davies, Damian Welch, Josh Turnbull, Josh Navidi, Nick Williams
Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Corey Domachowski, Keiron Assiratti, George Earle, Olly Robinson, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Matthew Morgan
It’s interesting to see Wilson stick with the same back line after just two tries from the three games so far, and with the attack having struggled to take advantage of plenty of good ball last week against Glasgow.
The defence has taken a big leap forwards in quality since last season, largely thanks to the obvious input from Shaun Edwards, but the attack has taken some considerable backwards steps so far. It’s no use having one effective part of the game if the other isn’t functioning.
An extra challenge for the backs this week, as they hunt for form, will be the Galway weather in all it’s glory. Gale force winds are forecast alongside heavy rain for Saturday afternoon, which will likely demand a very tight attacking game relying heavily on big carries and accurate passing.
In this sense the return to fitness of Kris Dacey could not be more timely, who can bring some open field carrying yards to the team, as can Brad Thyer alongside Seb Davies and Nick Williams left over from last week.
Cardiff’s kicking game will also have to improve dramatically from last week, coupled with the kick chasing, as it let us down badly against Glasgow. There will be no room for error in the Galway winds, and Connacht have the ability to punish poor kicking.
All this aside though, the players have to come into the game with confidence. They pushed Glasgow all the way last week in a game they really should have won, but if they keep improving as they have done in the last two weeks then there’s no reason they can’t get that all-important victory against Connacht on Saturday. Come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff Blues record v Connacht: W 19 D 2 L 8
Connacht form: LWL
Cardiff Blues form: LLL
Connacht top try scorers: Thomas Farrell, Darragh Leader, Eoghan Masterson, Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux (1)
Cardiff Blues top try scorers: Josh Navidi, Tom James (1)
Connacht top points scorer: Jack Carty (27)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Steve Shingler (23)
Marius Mitrea (ITA) – Third game of the season having controlled having controlled Glasgow v Ospreys and Ulster v Scarlets so far. Refereed our home loss to Connacht last season. Now one of the Pro14’s senior referees, but prone to a puzzling decision or two.