The second phase of Guinness Pro14 fixtures begins this weekend as Cardiff Blues welcome Connacht to the Arms Park on Friday night, 19:35 kick-off.
Although too early in the campaign to be a season defining game for Cardiff, there is no questioning it’s importance in terms of position in Conference A, with the game’s winner able to sit third in the table and in the European Champions Cup automatic qualification places.
After that seriously disappointing start to the season that saw three losses from the opening three games, it was two months ago in Galway that the win over Connacht saw our year really get going, with the Blues now on a run of four wins in five games across Pro14 and European action.
The grit and determination on show that wild day in West Ireland, coupled with the dancing feet of Willis Halaholo and nerve of Jarrod Evans, are what has underpinned much of our best moments in recent weeks, while confidence has grown noticeably.
Unfortunately the recent Anglo-Welsh Cup break did not go as planned, with a heavy loss to Newcastle being followed by a narrow defeat to Ospreys, but they did go to highlight the poor scheduling of the competition, while also allowing a number of future stars much needed game time at the professional level.
Connacht meanwhile have had three weeks off competitive rugby, whether that will be a blessing or a curse will largely depend on the result on Friday night, no doubt.
Their last outing was certainly an impressive one, beating Munster at the Sportsground, however they are yet to win on the road this season, having lost to Ulster and twice to Welsh opposition in Scarlets and Dragons.
Cardiff Arms Park was a happy hunting ground for the 2015/16 Pro12 Champions last season, with an 18-7 win during the Six Nations sealing the double, however you have to go back to February 2013 for their last victory before that at the home of rugby.
Head coach Kieran Keane will have to make do without Ultan Dillane, Kieran Marmion and star name Bundee Aki, as all three are involved with the Ireland side to face Argentina, while Jarrad Butler and Craig Ronaldson are injured.
New signing Pita Ahki is named amongst the substitutes though, while captain John Muldoon will make his 311th appearance for Connacht.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Eoin Griffin, Tom Farrell, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux, James Cannon, Eoin McKeon, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (c)
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Peter McCabe, Conor Carey, Gavin Thornbury, Eoghan Masterson, James Mitchell, Steve Crosbie, Pita Ahki
Danny Wilson meanwhile has had his hand forced by a number of injury and international withdrawals.
Josh Navidi and Kris Dacey are both named in the Wales squad to take on New Zealand next door on Saturday, while Seb Davies is retained by the national setup and Alex Cuthbert has been injured whilst on international duty.
Gethin Jenkins and Steve Shingler have both picked up injuries this week and are not available for selection, while Blaine Scully and Rey Lee-Lo are away with USA and Samoa, respectively.
With Aled Summerhill, Dan Fish and Rhun Williams all also in the treatment room, Owen Lane will make his first Pro14 start on the wing, while Harri Millard is named amongst the replacements.
The experience of Matthew Rees and Fa’ao Filise start alongside Corey Domachowski in the front row, with George Earle and Damian Welch behind them in the boiler room. Macauley Cook gets the nod ahead of Josh Turnbull at blindside joining Nick Williams and the newly loan extended Olly Robinson in the back row.
Young half-backs Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans start inside Willis Halaholo and Garyn Smith in the centres, while Tom James and Matthew Morgan join Owen Lane in the back three.
Gareth Anscombe makes a welcome return to the bench as he could come on for his first Pro14 appearance in just over six months.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Owen Lane, Garyn Smith, Willis Halaholo, Tom James, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Corey Domachowski, Matthew Rees (c), Taufa’ao Filise, George Earle, Damian Welch, Macauley Cook, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Brad Thyer, Anton Peikrishvili, James Down, Josh Turnbull, Lewis Jones, Gareth Anscombe, Harri Millard
Despite the injury list looking somewhat unhealthy, the matchday 23 contains more than enough quality to get the job done on Friday night.
A heavy and experienced tight five have the job of wrestling with a Connacht pack that is always a tricky opponent, but if they can come out on top then a settled looking three-quarter line and exciting back three should be ready to take advantage.
The inclusion of Garyn Smith at 13 is a big positive, with there being no coincidence that the best attacking performances this season have taken place with his straight line running in midfield, and his new found role as defensive leader resulting in some big shifts without the ball.
There is also comfort to be found in the quality off the bench, with the experience of Anton Peikrishvili, James Down, Josh Turnbull and Gareth Anscombe all ready to make an impact if need be.
Friday’s weather forecast certainly lends itself to running rugby, and with two teams that try to play expansive and entertaining games on show, it’s sure to be a cracker under the lights at the Arms Park, so get yourself a ticket and support the boys in one of the biggest games of the season so far. Come on Cardiff!!