After two impressive home wins in a week for Cardiff Blues, it’s time to go on the road as Danny Wilson’s men embark on their very own Italian Job, starting with Zebre on Sunday afternoon.
At the halfway point of this Six Nations block of fixtures we still sit fourth in the Guinness Pro14’s Conference A, but it’s tight in the table. At the start of play this round, Connacht were just five points back in fifth, and Cheetahs eight points ahead in third. It’s all to play for.
To consolidate that final Champions Cup qualification place, as well as push for a Pro14 play-off, only a win will do in Parma this weekend. With a home game against Benetton looming on Friday, it’s five days that will define the run-in to the season.
However, Zebre away has not been the kindest fixture to Cardiff Blues since the Italian side’s introduction to the league in 2012. Three wins and two losses at the Stade Sergio Lanfranchi doesn’t even tell the full picture of an away trip that has often been a tough one.
Two of the wins have come by seven points or less, including last season’s 21-23 scoreline thanks to tries from Matthew Morgan, Blaine Scully and Tom James, while there has been just a single try bonus point.
The try bonus point has been an issue in recent weeks for Cardiff Blues, with four league and European games seeing us score three tries since Christmas. Securing those three extra points would put us firmly in fourth place with our eyes planted firmly on the play-offs, rather than looking over our shoulders.
There is one piece of good news, in a weird way, that could help Cardiff Blues though. That is the Italian teams are much better than they used to be. Stick with me on this.
It often felt like the players were restricted by the idea that a match against either Zebre or Benetton were must-win-with-bonus-point occasions. The pressure often got to us, and then we’d end up either losing, or just scraping a victory.
This season it’s all change though, with Benetton’s points total being nearly that of the last two seasons combined, and Zebre already beaten last season’s points total. Only seven teams have come away victorious from Italy this campaign.
As a result, getting the win would be seen as a good result this weekend, and with Cardiff Blues seemingly thriving in pressure situations this season, it seems a cold Sunday afternoon in Parma would be the perfect place to secure an away win.
There is also a positive for us, as Zebre are looking depleted by call-ups to Italy’s Six Nations squad. Altogether there are 10 players still with Conor O’Shea’s national team, including influential fly-half Carlo Canna, and prop Andrea Lovotti.
They do have centre Giulio Bisegni, prop Dario Chistolini and hooker Oliviero Fabiani available to them though, with all three straight into the starting XV. Samoan international Faialaga Afamasaga starts in midfield, while experienced scrum-half Guglielmo Palazzani leads the side from nine.
Zebre: Rory Parata, Gabriele Di Giulio, Giulio Bisegni, Faialaga Afamasaga, Giovanbattista Venditti, Serafin Bordoli, Guglielmo Palazzani (c); Cruze Ah-Nau, Oliviero Fabiani, Dario Chistolini, David Sisi, Leonard Krumov, James Tucker, Johan Meyer, Derick Minnie
Replacements: Luhandre Luus, Daniele Rimpelli, Roberto Tenga, Valerio Bernabo, Jacopo Sarto, Riccardo Raffaele, Maicol Azzolini, Matteo Pratichetti
Cardiff Blues also find ourselves without first-team players due to international call-ups, this time in the Welsh setup, as Josh Navidi and Gareth Anscombe are missing once again, while Seb Davies travels to Dublin as a reserve.
Danny Wilson faces further issues with a number of players ruled out through injuries picked up against Munster last week, resulting in six changes to the starting XV altogether.
All of the changes come in the pack as an all-new front row sees Rhys Gill, Kirby Myhill and Anton Peikrishvili pack down, while Damian Welch is selected behind them in the second row. The back row has two changes as Olly Robinson will start at blindside, and Josh Turnbull will wear the number eight jersey.
The back line is exactly the same for the third game in a row, but there are new faces on the bench as Scott Andrews, James Down, Alun Lawrence and Blaine Scully are selected, while Rhys Buckley is drafted in from the Dragons to cover hooker.
Cardiff Blues: Rhun Williams, Aled Summerhill, Garyn Smith, Rey Lee-Lo, Owen Lane, Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams, Rhys Gill, Kirby Myhill, Anton Peikrishvili, George Earle, Damian Welch, Olly Robinson, Ellis Jenkins (c), Josh Turnbull
Replacements: Rhys Buckley, Brad Thyer, Scott Andrews, James Down, Alun Lawrence, Tomos Williams, Steve Shingler, Blaine Scully
Although the experienced faces of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Fa’ao Filise and Nick Williams are not making the trip to Italy this week, it does allow Danny Wilson to select a more mobile pack against a Zebre team that will no doubt try to run from anywhere.
Despite this new expansive style of play though, the Italians will no doubt still have the basis of a strong and powerful pack, meaning Cardiff Blues scrummaging will need to come up a level from the last few weeks, and Myhill’s lineout throwing will need to improve dramatically from last week’s showing.
Unchanged backs is a definite positive, and a number of players have been in fine form there, as Lloyd Williams continues a resurgence from last season’s below par performances, Garyn Smith continues to lead a solid defence, and a young back three remain dangerous with ball in hand.
Taking points when they are on offer will be key, so Jarrod Evans will have to pack his kicking boots, while a somewhat makeshift bench will need to make an impact, as the game is likely to stay tight until the latter stages.
After two excellent performances against Munster and Cheetahs it would be a shame for the momentum to go to waste in Parma, so a win over Zebre is the must-have coming home on Sunday evening. If the bonus point arrives, then it’s an added bonus.
Enjoy the trip of you are heading to Italy to support the boys, and wrap up warm with the weather forecast predicting snow. Hopefully the players give you plenty to cheer about, come on Cardiff!
Zebre form: LLWLW
Cardiff Blues form: LWWWW
Zebre top try scorers: Mattia Bellini, Renato Giammarioli (5)
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Matthew Morgan (5)
Zebre top points scorer: Carlo Canna (133)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (103)
Frank Murphy (IRE) – Ex-Munster, Connacht and Leicester scrum-half who has refereed Cardiff Blues on three occasions. A loss to Glasgow and victory over Lyon this season, and a win at home to Zebre last season in which he sent off a player from the Italian side. In 17 games he has overseen, 82% have ended in home wins.