Round four of the Challenge Cup rolls around this weekend as Sale Sharks arrive at Cardiff Arms Park for the second in the December double headers.
After last week’s 24-0 defeat at the AJ Bell Stadium there is more than a point to prove for the Cardiff Blues players after failing to score a point in a European encounter for the first time since 2007.
With the players owing a performance to themselves, the coaches and, most importantly, the supporters after last week’s serious disappointment there can be nothing less than an all guns blazing 80 minutes from the Cardiff Blues to make amends for that snowy day in Salford.
As well as that, there is still pool position to be played for as Cardiff retained top spot despite the defeat, and would benefit from a victory on Sunday to make for a slightly more comfortable final two rounds in January.
Sale meanwhile will be energised after picking up their first win in this season’s Challenge Cup last weekend, and well aware that an away victory at the Arms Park will all of a sudden see them sitting top of pool two going into Christmas.
If any win did come from the English side though it would be their first in the Welsh capital. In three previous European visits they have failed to register a competition point, and have also fallen to defeats in two friendlies and an EDF Energy Cup encounter.
The most recent fixture between the two sides at CAP in the then Heineken Cup saw a 26-14 scoreline thanks to tries from Lloyd Williams and Michael Paterson, as well as the boot of Leigh Halfpenny.
In a bid to rectify that record, Director of Rugby Steve Diamond recalls Tongan international prop Halani Aulika, second row Bryn Evans and captain Josh Strauss to start, although last week’s man-of-the-match AJ MacGinty does not travel to Cardiff.
Sale Sharks: Mike Haley, Denny Solomona, Mark Jennings, Rohan Janse Van Rensburg, Josh Charnley, Sam James, Will Cliff; James Flynn, Marc Jones, Halani Aulika, Bryn Evans, George Nott, Cameron Neild, TJ Ioane, Josh Strauss (c)
Replacements: Rob Webber, Ross Harrison, Alexandru Tarus, Matt Postlethwaite, Ben Curry, Matt Sturgess, Luke James, Paolo Odogwu
Danny Wilson meanwhile is able to recall four first-team players to his starting XV as Gethin Jenkins, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi and Willis Halaholo are all selected.
As a result of this Seb Davies slides into the second row alongside Damian Welch, with Brad Thyer, James Down, Josh Turnbull and Rey Lee-Lo dropping onto the bench and George Earle is not named in the squad at all.
There is also a straight swap between Tomos and Lloyd Williams at scrum-half, as 14 players still sit on the unavailable list.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Owen Lane, Garyn Smith, Willis Halaholo, Aled Summerhill, Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Gethin Jenkins (c), Matthew Rees, Anton Peikrishvili, Seb Davies, Damian Welch, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Brad Thyer, Keiron Assiratti, James Down, Josh Turnbull, Lloyd Williams, Jarrod Evans, Rey Lee-Lo
All-in-all it’s a strong team from Danny, and underlines just how important certain players are to the squad as just four new names take the XV from a competitive looking side, to one capable of seriously challenging this season.
A heavy and experienced front row allows a somewhat more mobile second row, which is crucial to an expansive game plan in terms of carrying in the wide channels and securing possession at breakdowns, while the back row looks a lot more balanced with the re-introduction of Navidi.
Selecting Tomos over Lloyd at half-back signals an intention to take advantage of the front foot ball the forwards are expected to produce. Subsequently it will then be hoped the exciting looking three-quarter line and back three can then get their hands on the ball in positive positions.
This, of course, is what was thought would be the case last week, before the mindset was changed to one of unrecognisable negativity in relation to the rest of the season. How much that has knocked the team’s confidence will remain to be seen.
The answer to that point could well shape the rest our season, and is why calling Sunday’s game the biggest match of the season so far is not an over-exaggeration.
Last weekend’s performance was undoubtedly massively disappointing, but the players now have a choice to make. Either ensure that is a one-off, or fail to develop the backbone required to get over that failure and watch the hard work done to date crumble away in yet more mediocrity.
There should be little more motivation needed than to prove the game in Salford was not representative of the talent within the team, but to repay the supporters loyalty in travelling up last weekend is certainly one source of extra energy.
To play for Cardiff Blues in European competition should be an honour, and as a result 100% effort in the jersey has to be a given.
We need to call on the commitment and togetherness shown against the likes of Connacht, Dragons and Toulouse now more than ever to produce a famous Arms Park victory and keep the season on track. Come on Cardiff!!!
Cardiff Blues record v Sale Sharks: W 5 L 5
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)
Thomas Charabas (FRA) – A French referee who has been around the block a bit, but only visited the Arms Park once before, when we beat Calvisano a few seasons back.