Cardiff Blues return to Guinness Pro14 action this weekend as, in a first for the Cardiff Arms Park, South African side Cheetahs make a visit to the Welsh capital.
After five weeks off the league, due to European Challenge Cup and Anglo-Welsh Cup commitments, now begins a crucial block of fixtures as five games take place during the Six Nations that will play a big part in determining where we finish at the end of the season.
Four of those games come in the next four weeks, and with three of them at home and the solitary away fixture being a trip to Zebre, Danny Wilson’s men will now doubt fancy their chances in collecting as many points as possible to secure Champions Cup qualification and push on for the play-offs.
That starts with Saturday night’s game against Conference A rivals Cheetahs, the team with the best attack in the league according to points scored, but the fourth-worst defecnce by points conceded.
Overall that leaves them third in the league, 15 points above ourselves, and three points behind Munster in second, after eight wins and five losses so far.
Despite being the first encounter between the two sides in the league since Cheetahs came on board, the two have actually met previously, as Cardiff Blues headed out to South Africa during pre-seaon 2012 to contest the Sir George Grey Cup.
It was the visitors to Bloemfontein who took the spoils that day as tries from Owen Williams, Chris Czekaj, Tom James and Macauley Cook secured a 31-32 win. The side was captained by Andries Pretorious and included Cook, James, Dan Fish, Lewis Jones, Josh Navidi, James Down and Scott Andrews who are still at the club today.
That sort of high scoring game has been no stranger to Cheetahs this season, with wins of 54-39 over Zebre, and 45-24 over Kings, as well as defeats of 51-18 to Munster and 42-19 to Ulster.
Those results are fairly indicative of how the season has gone for the South Africans, with a record of six wins in seven in Bloemfontein, but just the two wins on the road, and only a single victory in Europe over Zebre by a point.
Recent form has seen Cheetahs do the double over country rivals Southern Kings to consolidate their spot in third place, and they now travel North to face Cardiff Blues before going on to play Glasgow and Ospreys in a mini European tour.
Head Coach Rory Duncan, who this week announced he will leave at the end of the season to join Worcester, has named a strong XV to play at the Arms Park.
South African internationals Oupa Mohoje and Uzair Cassiem start in the back row, while fellow Springbok Francois Venter leads the side from centre. Namibian cap Torsten Van Jaarsveld also starts at hooker.
Fortunately for Cardiff, winger Makazole Mapimpi has moved on to join the Sharks, but young Craig Barry starts and is earning a name for himself as a danger man for the Cheetahs.
Cheetahs: Clayton Blommetjies, Craig Barry, Francois Venter (c), Nico Lee, Sibhale Maxwano, Fred Zeilinga, Shaun Venter; Ox Nche, Torsten Van Jaarsveld, Johan Coetzee, Justin Basson, Rynier Bernardo, Paul Schoeman, Oupa Mohoje, Uzair Cassiem
Replacements: Jacques Du Toit, Charles Marais, Tom Botha, Carl Wegner, Henco Venter, Zee Mkhabela, Niel Marais, Malcolm Jaer
Danny Wilson, meanwhile, has been boosted by the return of Wales squad members Dillon Lewis, Ellis Jenkins, Seb Davies and Tomos Williams to the Cardiff Blues, although was dealt late blows as Steve Shingler and Alex Cuthbert were ruled out by injuries.
With Kris Dacey also still sidelined, Matthew Rees packs down between Gethin Jenkins and Anton Peikrishvili, while George Earle gets the nod to face his countrymen alongside Seb Davies in the second row. Macauley Cook and Nick Williams join Ellis in the back row.
Lloyd Williams is the man chosen for the nine shirt inside Jarrod Evans, while Willis Halaholo’s injury sees Garyn Smith and Rey Lee-Lo team up in the centre again. A young back three of Owen Lane, Rhun Williams and Aled Summerhill will add some pace.
On the bench there are spots for Josh Turnbull and Olly Robinson, while Dan Fish could make his first Guinness Pro14 appearance in 16 months, and Ryan Edwards could make his league debut on loan from Bristol.
Cardiff Blues: Rhun Williams, Aled Summerhill, Garyn Smith, Rey Lee-Lo, Owen Lane, Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams; Gethin Jenkins (c), Matthew Rees, Anton Peikrishvili, George Earle, Seb Davies, Macauley Cook, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Brad Thyer, Dillon Lewis, Josh Turnbull, Olly Robinson, Tomos Williams, Dan Fish, Ryan Edwards
Despite largely going under the radar as the build up to the Six Nations dominates the rugby world, Saturday night’s encounter at the Arms Park promises to be a fascinating encounter between two sides determined to play expansive running rugby.
On the plastic pitch there is no doubt that both sides will be looking to attack, and it may well boil down to the smallest of margins in a game that will hopefully contain tries aplenty.
Wins are now getting crucial for Cardiff Blues and, as the chance to show off our strength in depth comes during the Six Nations, there is no reason to believe that we shouldn’t be coming away from CAP on Saturday night with the full compliment of match points in the bag.
It may be a tough kick-off time, and straight after England v Wales, but the players could really do with as much support as possible, so get down to the Arms Park and come on Cardiff!
Cardiff Blues form: WLLWW
Cheetahs form: WWLWW
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Willis Halaholo and Matthew Morgan (4)
Cheetahs top try scorer: Makazole Mapimpi (10)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (83)
Cheetahs top points scorer: Fred Zeilinga (69)
Ian Davies (WAL) – In his 70th competition game, Davies has refereed Cardiff Blues 14 times with eight wins coming from that. He has never refereed a game involving the Cheetahs.