Christmas means presents, food, time with the family and, of course, Welsh derbies. This year is no different as Cardiff Blues travel to Rodney Parade on Boxing Day afternoon to face the Dragons.
Almost 140 years to the date that a Cardiff side first made a trip to the Newport town centre ground, this year sees a first visit for the Blues to a WRU-owned Dragons side that have become a separate entity from Newport RFC.
It won’t be the first time we’ve taken on our rivals to the East since their takeover though, after a second half salvo saw Cardiff to a 43-29 at the Arms Park back in October with tries from Tom James, Alex Cuthbert, Matthew Morgan, Jarrod Evans and Kris Dacey.
Since then Danny Wilson’s men have won five in nine games across the Pro14 and Challenge Cup, most recently defeating Sale Sharks at home last weekend, bouncing back from getting nil’d in the reverse fixture the previous week.
The worry though, will be that the Blues have not won away from home in the league since Connacht in September, their only win on the road in the Pro14 this season, with attempts to defeat Scarlets and Glasgow at their respective homes falling short.
Dragons meanwhile are the subject of a similar story that has plagued their recent history, with encouraging performances failing to convert themselves into wins.
Bernard Jackman’s charges are yet to register a Pro14 win since our Arms Park encounter, with three defeats and a valiant draw with Ulster coming either side of two wins against Russian sides Enissei-STM in the Challenge Cup.
That leaves the Gwent side sixth in Conference B, ahead of Southern Kings but currently seven points behind a resurgent Treviso with a game in hand.
For the Boxing Day derby Jackman has named a Dragons side very heavy in ex-Cardiff Blues. Sam Hobbs, Cory Hill, James Sheekey and Gavin Henson all start, with Liam Belcher, Thomas Davies and Ben Roach on the bench.
Elsewhere there are starts for Wales international Elliott Dee, breakout star of the season James Benjamin, and 17-year-old starlet scrum-half Dan Babos. New loan signing Nicky Thomas and South African Sarel Pretorious find themselves amongst the replacements.
Dragons: Hallam Amos, Ashton Hewitt, Adam Warren, Jack Dixon, Pat Howard, Gavin Henson, Dan Babos; Sam Hobbs, Elliot Dee, Lloyd Fairbrother, Joe Davies, Cory Hill (c), Aaron Wainwright, James Benjamin, James Sheekey
Replacements; Liam Belcher, Thomas Davies, Nicky Thomas, Rynard Landman, Ben Roach, Sarel Pretorius, Angus O’Brien, Jared Rosser
Danny Wilson on the other hand is able to name a fairly settled matchday 23 after the Challenge Cup double header, with only two changes to the starting XV as Rey Lee-Lo replaces the injured Willis Halaholo, and newly re-signed Olly Robinson comes into the side in place of Damian Welch.
Macauley Cook shifts into the second row alongside Seb Davies to facilitate Robinson’s return, while on the bench Gethin Jenkins is set to make a comeback, after a false start against Sale, and Tom James gets the nod to cover the outside backs.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Owen Lane, Garyn Smith, Rey Lee-Lo, Aled Summerhill, Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Brad Thyer, Matthew Rees (c), Anton Peikrishvili, Seb Davies, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Gethin Jenkins, Keiron Assiratti, Damian Welch, Josh Turnbull, Lloyd Williams, Jarrod Evans, Tom James
On paper, the Cardiff Blues team is clearly much stronger in terms of a direct comparison against a Dragons side that features a number of inexperienced players and unproven names at the professional level.
However, they will take confidence from the positive environment that Bernard Jackman is building at their Ystrad Mynach training base, as well as being boosted by a vociferous Rodney Parade crowd that is dangerously close to selling out.
In terms of playing, Cardiff Blues will need to continue the forward dominance shown over Sale Sharks during the last two weeks. Especially at the set piece there has been some very strong showings, with Matthew Rees anchoring an effective scrum, while Seb Davies and Macauley Cook are very accomplished lineout jumpers.
With the weather showing some very heavy rain forecast for kick-off, the carrying powers of Nick Williams, Josh Navidi and Olly Robinson will be in huge demand, as will their skills on the floor at the breakdown, with the stronger pack likely to determine the winner of the game.
Linked with that will be the backs playing positive rugby, as they did for an hour against Sale at the Arms Park, when Cardiff were the dominant side, and not in the remaining 100 minute of the double header which resulted in some abject performances.
Above all the on field skills though, Welsh derbies are a test of passion, commitment and intensity. The vast majority of the time the team that wins are those that appear to want it the most, and there is no reason to believe it won’t be the same at Rodney Parade on Boxing Day.
Dragons will be pumped up to their eye balls looking to get one over on us in front a packed crowd, and there is nothing that we as Blues fans want more for Christmas than to spoil that party.
Now more than ever is the time to put in 110% for the jersey, do the club proud and make a name for yourself in a Welsh derby on Boxing Day. Come on Cardiff!!!
Dragons form: LLDWL
Cardiff Blues form: WWLLW
Dragons top try scorers: Ashton Hewitt, Elliott Dee (4)
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Matthew Morgan (5)
Dragons top points scorer: Gavin Henson (66)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (74)
Andy Brace (IRE) – The Canton-born referee will officiate on Boxing Day under the Irish banner, having previously refereed Cardiff Blues to four wins across seven games. He has only been in charge for one Dragons win on the other hand.