European action resumes this weekend as Cardiff Blues travel up to Salford to take on Sale Sharks in the first of the Challenge Cup festive double headers.
Currently leading pool two after wins over Lyon and Toulouse in the first two rounds, there is a great chance for Danny Wilson’s men to put themselves in pole position for a home quarter-final.
With momentum taken from those French victories, and subsequent good form in the league, there should be a confidence amongst the squad. However, heading up to the AJ Bell Stadium will be no walk in the park.
Despite being ninth in the Aviva Premiership currently, the Sharks have won their last two games, over Northampton and Worcester, and have scored the fourth most tries in the league. They also drew with Toulouse and pushed Lyon all the way in the first round of games, scoring 43 points in the process.
Being without any wins in those games though leaves them bottom of pool two, and aware that nothing less than a win will do if they want to keep their hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages alive.
It’s possible they have been effected by comments their Director of Rugby Steve Diamond made in pre-season about the Challenge Cup not being a priority this season, although the Sale boss, who is currently serving a stadium ban, has said Saturday’s game is a must-win.
The hosts will be buoyed by the fact that they are three from three in home games against Cardiff Blues, although the teams have never been separated by more than a two-point margin. The last encounter was a 34-33 thriller back in October 2012, with an Alex Cuthbert hat-trick and 18 points from Leigh Halfpenny’s boot providing our points.
For this week’s game Diamond has rotated his squad a bit, however they have retained a strong core to the side. As ever with the English sides, the additional funds they have results in a much better depth to their squads, so even their second string sides are competitive.
This week Sale have been able to call on England international rugby league convert Joshua Charnley as well as England Saxon Mike Haley, and England U20 internationals Mark Jennings and George Nott.
They have still retained a number of first team players though, with the likes of Denny Solomona, AJ MacGinty, Jono Ross and Andrei Ostrikov starting, while Faf De Klerk and James O’Connor are ready and waiting amongst the replacements.
Sale Sharks: Mike Haley, Denny Solomona, Mark Jennings, Rohan Janse Van Rensburg, Josh Charnley, AJ McGinty, Will Cliff; Ross Harrison, Marc Jones, WillGriff John, George Nott, Andrei Ostrikov, Cameron Neild, Ben Curry, Jono Ross (c)
Replacements: Rob Webber, James Flynn, Alexandru Tarus, Matt Postlethwaite, David Seymour, Faf De Klerk, Sam James, James O’Connor
Danny Wilson meanwhile has seen more players struck down by injury following a physical encounter with Glasgow last week, adding Willis Halaholo and Tom James to his unavailability list, alongside Fa’ao Filise who has taken a three week ban, and Kris Dacey who has returned from Team Wales duty unfit.
However, there is some welcome good news as Matthew Morgan, Aled Summerhill and Lloyd Williams make welcome returns to action, while Seb Davies is back from international duty and Matthew Rees is selected after a week off.
Rey Lee-Lo comes in at centre, while Gareth Anscombe moves up from full-back with Jarrod Evans dropping to the bench. In the forwards Anton Peikrishvili takes the tighthead spot, while James Down comes in at lock and Josh Turnbull moves across to openside.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Owen Lane, Garyn Smith, Rey Lee-Lo, Aled Summerhill, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams; Brad Thyer, Matthew Rees (c), Anton Peikrishvili, George Earle, James Down, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Corey Domachowski, Keiron Assiratti, Damian Welch, Sion Bennett, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Blaine Scully
Considering the circumstances of a lengthy injury list it’s a competitive team put out by Cardiff, however there are a few areas of concern.
We know Sale are a direct team and like to kick. With Matthew Morgan’s weakness under the high ball we could be vulnerable, potentially relying on Aled Summerhill or Gareth Anscombe to drop back and cover, leaving gaps like that which Glasgow took advantage of with a cross kick last week.
The balance in the back row is also out, with Seb Davies starting on the blindside for the first time this season, and lacking an out-and-out openside as Josh Navidi is rested, Josh Turnbull taking on those duties.
Elsewhere though there is wisdom in selecting a heavy looking tight five against a strong Sale pack, as well as the centre duo of Smith and Lee-Lo that dealt with Toulouse so well. An experienced half-back pairing of Lloyd Williams and Gareth Anscombe can hopefully marshal the side effectively.
With some high scoring matches in Greater Manchester over encounters gone by, this may well match those with two teams keen to attack and offering defensive weaknesses to take advantage of. It’s likely the winner will be the side who deal with their weak spots the best.
Unfortunately the weather may be the dominating factor, as snow and freezing temperatures are forecast, which could play into Sale’s hands if handling errors allow them to dominate at scrum time.
It’ll take a big effort, but if we can carry on our defensive form from next week it’ll stand us in good stead. Then it’s all on the attacking execution. Stay warm if you’re heading up this weekend, come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff Blues record v Sale Sharks: W 1 L 6
Sale Sharks top try scorer: Denny Solomona (7)
Cardiff Blues top try scorers: Willis Halaholo, Matthew Morgan (4)
Sale Sharks top points scorer: Faf de Klerk (59)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (74)
Pierre Brousset (FRA) – Youngest referee in the Pro14, only in his second full season. Has never refereed either side, so a bit of an unknown!