Guinness Pro14 action returns to the Arms Park for the first time in a month on Saturday night as Cardiff Blues welcome Zebre to the capital for an all-important Conference A clash.
With just two points separating the bottom four teams in the table, and Cardiff and Zebre having an identical win/loss record, it’s not quite a season defining encounter, but is certainly crucial in terms of keeping touch with the top three, and for the Blues getting off the bottom of the conference standings.
Further to similar results, both Cardiff Blues and Zebre have matching traits of almost all-out attacking to hide defensive frailties, meaning Saturday’s clash should be entertaining for those in attendance, on paper at least.
Despite the stereotype of the Italian sides being the whipping boys of the Pro12/14 over the past few years, this fixture has thrown up some good battles, including Zebre securing their first ever league win at CAP in March 2014, although the exception is the opening day of the 2015/16 season when Cardiff scored our highest ever points total in a match.
This season has been a general improvement for the Parma-based side though, despite the fact that they almost didn’t make the season at all, having technically gone bust before being taken into Union ownership by the FIR.
Victories over Kings and Ulster, as well as pushing both Ospreys and Edinburgh close on the road, leave them just seven points short of last season’s total already, and they arrive in Cardiff on the back of a single-point loss to Cheetahs last week.
Head coach Michael Bradley makes just one change from that side, with Gabriele Di Giulio coming onto the wing, as the Zebre side can call upon all it’s Italian internationals named in Conor O’Shea’s Autumn International squad this week.
Zebre: Matteo Minozzi, Giulio Bisegni, Mattia Bellini, Tommaso Castello, Gabriele Di Giulio, Carlo Canna, Marcello Violi; Sami Panico, Oliviero Fabiani, Eduardo Bello; Leonard Krumow, Valerio Bernabo, Giovanni Licata, Johan Meyer, Derick Minnie
Replacements: Luhandre Luus, Andrea De Marchi, Dario Chistolini, Jacopo Sarto, Renato Giammarioli, Guglielmo Palazzani, Serafin Bordoli, Ciaran Gaffney
Danny Wilson, on the other hand, is without his quartet of players selected by Wales, as Kris Dacey, Seb Davies, Josh Navidi and Alex Cuthbert are retained by the national side.
That makes up part of ten changes to the XV which lost to Scarlets last week, with the main headline being the return of Gethin Jenkins who hasn’t played at all since Judgement Day last season.
He forms a front row with Matthew Rees and Fa’ao Filise that has a total age of 115, considerably higher than the 66 years old that is the combined age of Corey Domachowski, Kirby Myhill and Kieron Assiratti on the bench.
There is all change in the second row, as Macauley Cook and Damian Welch form a new partnership, while Josh Turnbull starts at blindside.
In the backs there is a return to the half-back partnership of Lloyd Williams and Steve Shingler, while Garyn Smith is recalled at centre alongside Willis Halaholo. Aled Summerhill starts on the wing for his first appearance since the opening day.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Aled Summerhill, Garyn Smith, Willis Halaholo, Blaine Scully, Steve Shingler, Lloyd Williams; Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Taufa’ao Filise, Macauley Cook, Damian Welch, Josh Turnbull, Ollie Robinson, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Corey Domachowski, Keiron Assiratti, George Earle, Sion Bennett, Tomos Williams, Ben Jones, Tom James
Overall the exact way Danny Wilson wants to play is slightly difficult to say, with a wide looking but not particularly mobile team selected. However, what is true is that there is no replacement for experience, and this Cardiff Blues team has that in abundance.
The excitement will come from the back three, who will have to hope that pack can function well enough to provide a platform for them. A lot will also depend on the straight running and distribution of Garyn Smith in the centre that was missed last week.
With Matthew Rees back at hooker then set piece dominance will be hoped for, and if we can secure good first phase ball then we stand a good chance of gaining metres. Chance conversion will then be the phrase of the day. Staying calm in the redzone and trusting ourselves to get over the line.
Defence could well be the make or break of the performance though, as Zebre will look to score tries, and do so from anywhere. Kick chase, phase defence and scrambling will have to be as good as it’s been all season, with an awareness and intensity to deal with the Italians who will be as powerful as they are skilful.
While Saturday isn’t season defining, a win will remove us from the foot of Conference A, always a psychological boost, and see us looking up the table once again, with the visit of Connacht next up in the league a chance to push on even further.
Time to show what Cardiff Blues are made of this season, and if we’re serious about being European Champions Cup qualifying contenders. Come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff Blues record v Zebre: W 7 L 3
Cardiff Blues form: LWWWL
Zebre form: WLLLL
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Willis Halaholo (3)
Zebre top try scorer: Mattia Bellini (3)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (52)
Zebre top points scorer: Carlo Canna (70)
Sean Gallagher (IRE) – One of the youngest referees in the league, this will be the first time the Leinster referee has officiated Cardiff Blues, but the fourth time he has taken charge of a Zebre game, with one win coming for the Italians.