Guinness Pro14 action returns to the Arms Park on Friday night in the shape of this season’s first Welsh derby, as Cardiff Blues welcome Dragons to the capital.
After two weeks away in Ireland it’s good to return to familiar plastic, and with a few players rested as the injury list slowly decreases in length and players are welcomed back into action all the time.
Coming home with a first win of the season is also a big positive, after that superb Jarrod Evans conversion gained us all four points against Connacht, although last weekend’s defeat to Munster wasn’t the ideal way to back that up.
Now we switch to the second block of fixtures in the 2017/18 season though, and it starts with the visit of Dragons as the inter-Welsh sides battle recommences for another campaign.
Of course this is the first time our neighbours to the East have come to us since coming under Welsh Rugby Union ownership and ditching their ‘Newport Gwent’ prefix, although ironically the ‘Gwent’ term has been used more since trying to move away from geographical references than when it was actually part of the team’s name.
Nevertheless an evolution, not a revolution as were are reminded, has taken place at Rodney Parade, with former Irish international and Grenoble coach coming in to lead the rugby side of the operation while Gavin Henson has been the marquee WRU signing.
Two wins from the first five league games, over Connacht and most recently Southern Kings last week, sees the Dragons sat fifth in Conference B and almost halfway to their points total for the entirety of last season after just the first month of this.
Despite all that positivity though, the Dragons have still not won a game away from home in the league since March 2015, when they beat Treviso in Italy, a run which continues to beggar belief.
That of course means that they have not won at the Arms Park in that time either, the last victory on the road in this fixture coming in December 2014 when we traded away wins over the festive period.
Two straight seasons of Cardiff Blues doing the double over Dragons have followed, with the most recent win coming at Caerphilly’s Virginia Park at the back end of last season courtesy of tries from Matthew Morgan and Willis Halaholo, as well as the boot of Gareth Anscombe.
Head Coach Jackman has made just the one change to the XV that beat Kings last week, although there wasn’t much option to bring any other players in with a 27-man injury list rivalling Cardiff’s from December last year.
Full-back Carl Meyer is ruled out causing Hallam Amos to drop back to 15 and Jared Rosser makes his first start for Dragons on the left wing. On the bench former Cardiff Blues hooker Liam Belcher is also in line to make his debut for the Newport-based side.
Dragons: Hallam Amos, Ashton Hewitt, Tyler Morgan, Jack Dixon, Jared Rosser, Gavin Henson, Sarel Pretorius; Brok Harris, Elliot Dee, Leon Brown, Matthew Screech, Cory Hill (c), James Thomas, Ollie Griffiths, James Benjamin
Replacements; Liam Belcher, Luke Garrett, Lloyd Fairbrother, Joe Davies, Aaron Wainwright, Owain Leonard, Angus O’Brien, Will Talbot-Davies
Danny Wilson meanwhile has made seven changes to his XV that lost to Munster last weekend, welcoming back the likes of Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Josh Navidi, Damian Welch and Kris Dacey after they were rested instead of travelling to Thomond Park.
Seb Davies and Lloyd Williams step up from the bench, while Jarrod Evans and Olly Robinson retain their places in the starting lineup.
Cardiff Blues: Rhun Williams, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Tom James, Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams (c); Brad Thyer, Kristian Dacey, Taufa’ao Filise, Seb Davies, Damian Welch, Josh Navidi, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams
Replacements: Matthew Rees, Corey Domachowski, Keiron Assiratti, George Earle, Josh Turnbull, Tomos Williams, Steven Shingler, Matthew Morgan
It may seem quite unstable to make seven changes after making eight last week, but when you consider that there are only two changes from the XV which beat Connacht to that which will take the field tomorrow night, Danny’s plans start to make sense.
We now have a strong XV going out, with key players having had a week’s rest, and ready to go in what will no doubt be a tough game despite the injury woes the Dragons currently have.
Previous games against our Easterly neighbours have often become wars of attrition, dragged into set piece battles and big hits in midfield. However, under Jackman the Dragons are moving away from that, playing some fast-paced expansive rugby that is causing problems to opposition sides.
Cardiff Blues’ defensive blitz will have to work really hard around the third and fourth man to keep Dragons narrow, and offer a physical challenge up front as the reason for Friday’s visitors playing wide is that they just don’t have the weight in their pack to compete.
If we can dominate up front it will offer a good platform for the backs who looked much more dangerous with ball in hand at Munster last week, although we will have to be wary that the flip side to Dragons not matching us for size in the forwards is counteracted by the fact they will be mobile when it comes to hitting breakdowns.
After a few weeks of bit-part performances where certain areas have shone while others lacked, it’s really time to bring all the best parts of our game together for a convincing win. With Friday’s game kicking off a league run that sees Zebre and Connacht also visiting the Arms Park in the next four rounds it would be great to get a big confidence boosting score on the board here.
Every derby is one you want to win, but for the supporters and our standalone club there’s a real chance to put one over on the Welsh Rugby Union here. Now is the time to really kick-start the season, come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff Blues record v Dragons: W 20 L 8
Cardiff Blues form: LLLWL
Dragons form: LLWLW
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Willis Halaholo (2)
Dragons top try scorers: Hallam Amos, Elliott Dee (3)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Steve Shingler (28)
Dragons top points scorer: Gavin Henson (47)
Nigel Owens (WAL) – It’s not a great sign for Cardiff Blues when ‘Showtime Nige’ appears next to our fixture, as he has officiated nine losses in our last nine Pro Rugby games with him at the helm. Interestingly though, this is the first time that Owens has refereed us at the Arms Park since May 2009 when he was in charge as we beat Dragons 26-12.