The final game of 2017 for Cardiff Blues sees Scarlets travel to a sold-out Cardiff Arms Park for the second in a run of three straight Welsh derbies over the festive period.
It was almost 365 days ago that the year started with a 15-10 defeat to Scarlets in Llanelli, with 15 wins, 13 losses and a single draw following for Cardiff Blues in what has been an inconsistent year of ups and downs.
However, recent form has been quietly improving, with seven wins in the last 10 Pro14 and European matches leaving Danny Wilson’s men top of their European Challenge Cup pool and in the automatic qualification spots for next season’s Champions Cup in the league.
Unfortunately one of the losses in that run was to our New Year’s Eve opponents, as the Blues went down 30-17 at Parc y Scarlets. Tries from Lloyd Williams and Willis Halaholo were not enough to overcome the league champions in a disappointing display filled with frustrating inaccuracies.
That was the third straight defeat suffered by Cardiff in this fixture, after the loss on New Year’s Day and a home defeat in October last year, leaving open the possibility of Scarlets doing successive doubles over us.
Last season’s Guinness Pro12 winners have adapted to life as champions well, currently sitting top of Conference B in the now Pro14 after nine wins and two losses. They have also won two and lost two in the Champions Cup, leaving them third in the pool, just a point behind Bath and Toulon heading into the final two rounds.
The encouragement for Cardiff Blues will come in the fact that three of the four losses Scarlets have suffered this season have come on the road, will the fourth came at home to Bath in poor weather conditions, similar to that forecast on New Year’s Eve.
There also may be a psychological barrier for the visitors to overcome after a number of comments made by their head coach Wayne Pivac regarding supposed adverse impacts on players caused by the artificial pitch at the Arms Park.
As a result of that Pivac has chosen to leave out a number of players, including Aaron Shingler, John Barclay and Johnny McNicholl, due to not risking players carrying little niggles.
Scarlets also have a number of tactical changes to the side which beat Ospreys, with Wyn Jones and Ryan Elias starting alongside Werner Kruger in the front row, Steve Cummins joining Tadhg Beirne at lock and Rhys Patchell partnering Gareth Davies at half-back.
The final change to the starting line-up is an enforced one as the banned Steff Evans is replaced by Paul Asquith on the left wing.
Scarlets: Leigh Halfpenny, Tom Prydie, Hadleigh Parkes, Scott Williams (c), Paul Asquith, Rhys Patchell, Gareth Davies; Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias, Werner Kruger, Tadhg Beirne, Steve Cummins, Josh Macleod, James Davies, Will Boyde
Replacements: Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Simon Gardiner, David Bulbring, Lewis Rawlins, Aled Davies, Dan Jones, Ioan Nicholas
Danny Wilson, meanwhile, has finally had more good news than bad news on the injury front in the week leading up to a game, as Rhys Gill, Kris Dacey, Dillon Lewis, George Earle, Ellis Jenkins, Willis Halaholo and Alex Cuthbert all return to the matchday squad.
Fa’ao Filise also returns to the squad after a ban, to join Matthew Rees and Gill in the front row, while Josh Turnbull is selected alongside Seb Davies at lock. The back row remains the same.
In the backs the half-backs keep their places, with Halaholo partnering Rey Lee-Lo in the centre and Tom James replacing the injured Aled Summerhill on the wing. Dacey, Dillon, Earle, Ellis and Cuthbert are all named amongst the replacements.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Owen Lane, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Tom James, Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Rhys Gill, Matthew Rees (c), Taufa’ao Filise, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Josh Navidi, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kristian Dacey, Brad Thyer, Dillon Lewis, George Earle, Ellis Jenkins, Lloyd Williams, Jarrod Evans, Alex Cuthbert
It’s definitely one of the stronger matchday 23s named by the Cardiff Blues this season, leaving no room to use injuries as any excuse for a poor performance. Up against a Scarlets side missing the likes of Samson Lee, Jake Ball, Aaron Shingler, John Barclay, Jon Davies, Johnny McNicholl and Steff Evans, this is a huge chance to get one over on the league champions.
Having said that, the opponents will be no pushovers. That league winning form from last season has bred a culture of winning at the Scarlets. They not only play exciting wide and expansive rugby, they also have a ugly, win-at-all-costs side to their game, which makes them incredibly difficult to play against.
In the last few weeks Cardiff have proven that they are not the side of recent years that just rolls over in the face of adversity. The players have recovered from a nightmare start to the campaign and an embarrassing 24-0 defeat to Sale a few weeks ago to register important wins, such as the games away to Toulouse, and Dragons last time out.
They will require all that grit and determination on New Year’s Eve though, combining it with an accuracy shown at time against Sale and Dragons in poor conditions, to come away with the win at CAP.
Disciplined physicality, from a pack that will need to get the upper hand on their opponents, mixed with a clinical edge from the attack. 80 minutes of effort, no room for lapses in concentration or dips in energy levels.
It doesn’t get much better than a packed full Cardiff Arms Park for a Welsh derby, so let’s give the players our full support, and hope they repay us with the performance we know they can produce. Come on Cardiff!!!
Cardiff Blues form: WLLWW
Scarlets form: WLWWW
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Matthew Morgan (5)
Scarlets top try scorer: Gareth Davies (7)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (74)
Scarlets top points scorer: Rhys Patchell (80)
George Clancy (IRE): Oh God! Cardiff Blues have won less than half of games with Clancy in charge, while Scarlets are closer to three-quarters won. He just doesn’t like us!