After a long week of off-field news, it’s finally time to return to what matters during a Pro14 season, playing rugby.
A second Irish away trip in a week sees a trip to Thomond Park and the challenge of Munster, as Danny Wilson’s men look to build on last Saturday’s first win of the season over Connacht.
Of course it’s been a disappointing week in terms of Danny’s announcement that he will be leaving at the end of the season, but that’s still around seven months away at this point, and there’s a whole lot of on-field action to go, starting on Saturday afternoon.
On the subject of coaches leaving though, it is an interesting situation in Limerick this weekend, as both coaches are ‘working their notice period’ in many ways. Wilson is obviously departing in the summer, while Munster Director of Rugby Rassie Erasumus will take charge of South Africa at the end of December.
With that in mind it’s interesting to see Munster’s record so far this season, with them having known Erasmus would be departing three months in since the start of the season. Big home wins over Treviso and Cheetahs were followed by an away victory over the Ospreys before a tough 10-31 loss to Glasgow last week has left them second in Conference A.
The Irish side are looking to bounce back from double semi-final disappointment last season that saw them lose to Saracens in the Champions Cup before being defeated by Scarlets in the Pro12, with both sides going on to be crowned champions.
Last season also saw Munster fall to another defeat, to Cardiff Blues at home, an Irish win being something of a rarity in recent years. Right in the middle of our excellent form during the opening month a brace of tries from Tom James, and a solo Dan Fish effort, saw us to a 23-24 win, ending a run of three straight defeats in the fixture.
Interestingly though, only one of the last four games away to Munster have happened at their usual home ground of Thomond Park in Limerick, with the others all taking place at Irish Independent Park in Cork.
Thomond will likely be a new venue for many of the Cardiff Blues squad, as we haven’t played there since a 54-13 loss in May 2014, and, even though it is unlikely to be at 100% on Saturday, it is still a notoriously difficult venue to steal a win.
As they look to bounce back from last week, Munster have made nine changes and are able to welcome back their three British and Irish Lions in the form of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Conor Murray.
Injuries in the second row, most recently to big South African Jean Kleyn, have necessitated Mark Flanagan coming in on loan from Saracens and former Cardiff Blues favourite Robin Copeland shifting in as a makeshift second row.
Irish international front row Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and John Ryan will all make their first starts of the season, while Ian Keatley and Jaco Taute start in midfield. JJ Hanrahan could make his second Munster debut off the bench.
Munster: Andrew Conway, Darren Sweetnam, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Alex Wootton, Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Robin Copeland, Billy Holland, Peter O’Mahony (c), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander
Replacements: Rhys Marshall, Liam O’Connor, Stephen Archer, Mark Flanagan, Sean McCarthy, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Chris Farrell
There are also debuts in the Cardiff Blues side as Jack Roberts is set to make his bow playing outside Willis Halaholo in the centres, while Olly Robinson will make his first start after making a positive impression off the bench last weekend in Galway.
Danny Wilson has made six other changes to the side that was victorious last week, with Matthew Rees starts at hooker, George Earle and James Down form a new second row partnership, Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans form a new half-back partnership, and Blaine Scully captains the side from the right wing.
Seb Davies, Lloyd Williams and Steve Shingler all drop to the bench, with Kris Dacey, Damian Welch and Josh Navidi all listed as ‘unavailable’, while Alex Cuthbert and Rey Lee-Lo are rested after starting all four games so far this season.
Cardiff Blues: Rhun Williams, Blaine Scully (c), Jack Roberts, Willis Halaholo, Tom James, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Brad Thyer, Matthew Rees, Taufa’ao Filise, George Earle, James Down, Josh Turnbull, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams
Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Corey Domachowski, Keiron Assiratti, Seb Davies, Macauley Cook, Lloyd Williams, Steven Shingler, Matthew Morgan
After a largely disappointing and negative second half to the week, this team actually comes as some very encouraging news for this season as, despite making eight changes, that matchday 23 is still a very competitive one.
Of course we could name stronger squads if we wanted to, but what this team selection does is rest certain key players, your Lee-Los and Cuthberts, but gives chances to the likes of Roberts and Scully to stake their claim for the first team.
With Munster’s makeshift second row it’s a good decision to bring in James Down and George Earle, who will be heavier than Seb and Welch, along with Matthew Rees, this should bring some scrum dominance early on.
Then it’s over to the backs and for Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans to recreate the attacking intent they showed to get us over the line against Connacht last week. If they can provide a good service for Halaholo and Roberts, who need to click pretty quickly in midfield, then we stand a chance of competing.
Another huge defensive performance will be needed, but the team should take huge confidence in the knowledge that they won’t face a more physically demanding and lengthy shift without the ball than they got through last week.
Putting all off-field uncertainties aside, when you focus entirely on our current squad and what they could achieve this season a sense of positivity returns. Every week from that defeat to Edinburgh our performances have improved, and this weekend demands the same again.
The season really got going last week, now let’s keep riding that wave onwards and upwards. Come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff Blues record v Munster: W 11 L 17
Munster form: WWWL
Cardiff Blues form: LLLW
Munster top try scorer: Alex Wootton (5)
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Willis Halaholo (2)
Munster top points scorer: Alex Wootton (25)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Steve Shingler (28)
Quinton Immelman (SA) – The first ever Cardiff Blues Pro14 game refereed by a South African. Has so far refereed home wins for Welsh sides Dragons and Ospreys over Connacht and Zebre, respectively.