A run of three Welsh derbies comes to an end this weekend as Cardiff Blues’ first game of 2017 sees us traverse the M4 to Swansea, for a game against Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium.
At one point a few years ago this was the biggest game in Welsh rugby, with the two best teams post-2003 squaring off. ‘The galacticos’ of Ospreys vs ‘the chequebook Charlies’ of Cardiff Blues. However, times have changed and the balance of power has shifted out to the Far West.
These days though it’s the battle of the under-achievers. Ospreys have never won a European knockout game, while Cardiff haven’t even qualified for the Champions Cup in four years. Off-field problems dominate at both clubs, but potential for great things remain in each squad.
The beginning of realising that potential may well start this Saturday with a game that decides if this run of derbies will be a success. Both sides have beaten the Dragons and lost to the Scarlets so far. Two wins and a defeat looks acceptable, vice versa would appear to under-par.
For the Ospreys it would be a big turn around from early in the season, which started with two wins in 12 league and European games, leaving them bottom of the Pro14’s Conference A and struggling in the Champions Cup.
However, back-to-back wins over Northampton has left the Swansea-based team with an outside chance of qualifying for Europe’s knockout stages, while that victory over the Dragons means a win on Saturday should left them off the foot of the league table.
With that in mind, under fire head coach Steve Tandy has named a strong Ospreys visit for the visit of the Blues, with 10 Wales internationals, including four British and Irish Lions, in the starting XV, as well as Canadian Jeff Hassler on the wing.
Ma’afu Fia, Sam Davies and Alun Wyn Jones come into the team after starting on the bench against Dragons, while Rob McCusker replaces the injured Dan Lydiate in the back row. Experience on the bench comes from Dimitri Arhip and James Hook, with young Welshmen Adam Beard and Will Jones hoping to have an impact.
Ospreys: Sam Davies, Dan Evans, Ashley Beck, Owen Watkin, Jeff Hassler, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Nicky Smith, Scott Baldwin, Ma’afu Fia, Bradley Davies, Alun Wyn Jones (c), Olly Cracknell, Justin Tipuric, Rob McCusker
Replacements: Scott Otten, Gareth Thomas, Dmitri Arhip, Adam Beard, Will Jones, Tom Habberfield, James Hook, Dafydd Howells
To make the encounter a particularly enticing one, Danny Wilson has moved to match Tandy in the strength of selected squads, naming a XV with seven Welsh, one Georgian and one Samoan international.
From the team that faced Scarlets there are six changes in the starters, with Kris Dacey and Anton Peikrishvili named up front, and Damian Welch returning to the second row. In the backs there is a new pairing of Lloyd Williams and Jarrod Evans at half-back, as Gareth Anscombe drops to full-back where he is joined in the back three by Alex Cuthbert.
On the bench there are returns for Gethin Jenkins and Ethan Lewis, while Garyn Smith is recalled to cover centre and the wing.
Cardiff Blues: Gareth Anscombe, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Owen Lane, Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams; Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey (c), Anton Peikrishvili, Damian Welch, Josh Turnbull, Josh Navidi, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams
Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Gethin Jenkins, Dillon Lewis, George Earle, Ellis Jenkins, Tomos Williams, Garyn Smith, Matthew Morgan
Overall it’s a very healthy looking Cardiff Blues squad, which certainly goes to example the depth we do possess in the squad, benefitting the replacements bench enormously. Wilson certainly has plenty of options to utilise throughout the game.
Hopefully by the time they are required a lead will have been built up by a starting XV that certainly signals a return to the attacking play that assisted in the good form of October. Mobile locks, strong carriers, and a back line ready to do damage from quick ball.
It is also reminiscent of the tactics that helped Cardiff Blues to a much celebrated victory over the Ospreys at Judgement Day. Carry well, ruck cleverly and generate quick ball. Play with tempo and don’t let the opposition defence recover. It’s a simple but effective game plan, but it suits us down to the ground.
Of course there is another part to our game which will have to be at it’s best, and it’s not only the usual 100% commitment, effort and passion required to wear the Cardiff Blues jersey, or the extra 10% needed to win a derby, but the mental strength it will take to win at the Liberty Stadium.
Although coaches Duane Goodfield, Nicky Robinson and Robin Sowden-Taylor were involved that day, only Gethin Jenkins survives on the playing staff from a day where tries from Deiniol Jones, Craig Morgan and Chris Czekaj secured a 9-28 win in December 2005.
But for a 21-21 draw in April 2011 it would have been 12 years of defeats, what we as supporters want more than anything is for a win at the Liberty though.
This Saturday’s game could be perceived in the wider picture of ensuring success over the festive period, entering the final two rounds of European action with momentum, or even setting the side up for an assault on the second half of the season as a whole.
However, this is a time to focus on a single 80 minutes. In an almost Cup Final manner, Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Stadium is all that matters. It’s the best chance we’ve had to beat the Ospreys at their place in good time, and I fully back the boys not to waste it. Come on Cardiff!!
Ospreys form: LWWLW
Cardiff Blues form: LLWWL
Ospreys top try scorer: Dan Evans (8)
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Matthew Morgan (5)
Ospreys top points scorers: Sam Davies, Dan Biggar (71)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (74)
Nigel Owens (WAL) – The less said about this the better.