The week leading up to European rugby’s quarter-finals is always an exciting one as the best teams on the continent prepare to do knockout battle.
Ties of the weekend, battles between star names, old rivalries resumed and semi-final berths to be won, a neutral rugby fan can sit down in front of the television on a Friday night and be treated to a weekend of top quality rugby until Sunday evening.
However, for supporters for the teams involved in the games, there’s not much bigger debate than which XV should be heading out onto the field for their side in what is generally the biggest game of the season so far. Well, that, and what time to start drinking on the morning of the match.
In Cardiff Blues case there are some particularly difficult decisions facing Danny Wilson and his coaching staff with players returning from the Six Nations adding to a squad already packed full of in-form players. I am certain he will not be complaining though, it’s a long time since we’ve had problems of this magnitude.
Before the team is announced at Friday lunchtime, here is my look at the key decisions facing Danny, and who gets the nod if (God forbid) I was picking the team.
Kicking off the team selection is a decision that is actually straight forward, as the loosehead spot is sewn up by Gethin Jenkins. The club captain has been in fine form, starting four of the five straight Pro14 wins, and putting in shifts of 68 and 65 minutes over the last two games. His legs are showing no sign of being 37, and he’s a key member of the team.
Hooker is a slightly different proposition however, as the chopping and changing of the player in the number two shirt suggests.
Kirby Myhill started against Zebre and Benetton, impressing in both games with his lineout throwing and mobility, before Matthew Rees returned from injury on the weekend to claim the starting berth that he has occupied 16 times this season.
That only lasted 12 minutes though, before a knee injury forced him off and out for the season, with Kris Dacey coming off the bench to put in a stirling performance, throwing nine out of nine lineouts successfully, making 16 tackles and grabbing himself a try.
Dacey was also a part of a replacement front row that absolutely destroyed Ulster in the second half, with Nick Williams making a point of congratulating him after criticism of the Merthyr man’s scrummaging ability.
On the tighthead there is some equally big calls to make. Dillon Lewis was a part of that front row which drove through Ulster on the weekend, but only came on after Scott Andrews had finished a big 61 minute shift. 32 tackles across the last three games for the prop, who looks hungry for first team rugby.
Of course you can’t mention the number three jersey at Cardiff Blues without bringing up Fa’ao Filise, who has been packing down for 12 years now, while Anton Peikrishvili is back in full training after two appearances in the Rugby Europe Championships for Georgia.
My selection: Gethin Jenkins, Kris Dacey, Dillon Lewis
With Matthew Rees not making it to Edinburgh, then Kris Dacey would be the obvious replacement. The only issue then is if Dacey and Andrews would be strong enough at the scrum to pack down against Edinburgh. I don’t think so, therefore Dillon Lewis gets the nod.
The first half of the season saw a lot of second row partnerships take to the field for Cardiff Blues, with the likes of George Earle, Damian Welch, Seb Davies, James Down, Josh Turnbull and Macauley Cook all getting the nod to start at lock, while Ben Murphy made his Pro14 debut off the bench on the weekend and has been added to the European squad.
Since the start of the unbeaten run there has been an increased solidity to the second row, with George Earle starting every game, and being joined by Seb Davies more often than not. Their contrasting styles of play have complimented each other perfectly, and they have been a part of a lot of the good work done by Cardiff Blues in that time.
There is a potential spanner in the works though, in the shape of Josh Turnbull. As will be discussed below, we have an embarrassment of high quality back row options. Quite possibly more than England in the Six Nations. Therefore, Turnbull might find it tough to make it onto his natural blindside flank.
Danny might find it equally tough to leave him out though. An experienced member of the squad, a handy ball carrying option and, most notably, a key lineout jumper and top tackler. Turnbull is currently fourth in the Pro14’s tackle list with 191, and second in lineouts won with 55. Can’t argue with those stats.
My selection: Seb Davies and George Earle
Although Turnbull has been very impressive, the partnership between Davies and Earle is a rock solid one. It is the basis around which the recent run has been formed, and I see no reason to break it up for this huge game.
Interestingly, although we do have an abundance of quality in the back row, for my money the choice is fairly simple. Nick Williams has been the main man when it comes to Cardiff Blues this season, being the focal point of the team in terms of defending, ball carrying, turnovers and leadership. Our win record with him, as opposed to without him, is stark.
Ellis Jenkins is another who has been superb this season. After returning from a serious injury at the turn of the year the flanker has been in top form, earning a call-up to the Wales squad and being dubbed ‘Simba’ on Twitter as a future captain of the Lions. It has been suggested, not unfairly, that he could keep Sam Warburton out of the side if Sam were fit.
With Josh Navidi returning to the squad after a superb Six Nations Championship he was granted a week off last week, but is now ready to return to domestic action after showing off his full skillset of carrying, handling, tackling and jackaling on the international stage.
Now, as mentioned above, Josh Turnbull has been immense this season, while Olly Robinson has been the surprise of the season and Macauley Cook has been the Mr Consistent that he all know he is, however, the tough decision is to leave these three out of the back row, knowing they could form a high quality partnership between them.
My selection: Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams
Three high class players, who strike a perfect back row balance. We can target the breakdown, be confident they will return a high tackle, get front foot attacking ball and have the link play between forwards and backs. Any two of Turnbull, Cook and Robinson will make excellent bench options, but it has to be these three to start.
Tomos or Lloyd? Lloyd or Tomos? It’s a question that has dogged us all season and, in fairness to Danny, he’s got it pretty spot on.
Since Lloyd’s return to form after a fairly torrid time last season both scrum-halves have been enitrely credible options for the nine jersey, each bringing their own attributes to the role.
Tomos’ great weapon is his pace, both in terms of speed of ball and sniping around the fringes. He is attacking minded, likes to play the game at a high tempo, and links well with Jarrod Evans who he has come through the ranks with. However, the speed sometimes impacts on his game management and decision making.
Lloyd, on the other hand, is the go-to nine for game management. He is an experienced member of the squad, has a superb box kick off both feet, and controls the game well in tight situations. On his down side is an occasional lack of pace injection though, to put Evans or Anscombe on the front foot with ball-in-hand.
My selection: Tomos Williams
This was a tough call, but after seeing Tomos link up with Jarrod superbly on Saturday, I think the way to do is opt for him from the start, try and hit Edinburgh with pace early on, and then bring Lloyd on to keep things tight late on, whether that’s chasing the game or holding on to a lead.
Due to our attacking style, in more of then than not using the full-back as the second playmaker, and the players we have in the squad who can cover both positions, I am putting the 10 and 15 jerseys together when looking at the selection.
Over the last two games the axis has been occupied by Jarrod Evans and Matthew Morgan, with great effect against Ulster on the weekend. Evans ran the show from outside half, with Nipper stepping into the first receiver slot when the young ten was otherwise engaged, and we all know about Morgan’s ability with ball-in-hand.
However, both have their drawbacks. Evans is still a young man in what is really his first season in the first team, and although has been impressive on the whole, is still prone to game management lapses, while Morgan’s defensive frailties have been well publicised.
Waiting in the wings to return to the Cardiff Blues side is another returnee from Team Wales, Gareth Anscombe. The 26-year-old has been the first choice fly-half since arriving in Cardiff back in 2014, and made his first Six Nations appearances at 10 this season, but spent time at full-back before joining up with the national squad.
Wilson could also play a wildcard in the shape of Steve Shingler at 10, or Blaine Scully at full-back, but the likelihood is that it will come down to two of Jarrod, Anscombe or Morgan.
My selection: Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe
Anscombe has far too much quality to leave out of a European quarter-final, and the question is just about how he fits into the XV. In my squad selection he will be at full-back with Jarrod Evans keeping hold of the 10 jersey.
It worked well against Toulouse and Lyon in the final two rounds of the pool stages, utilising their creativity with ball-in-hand as well as their individual running threats. There are also two footballers on the field, and Anscombe is able to step in with game management if Evans is struggling.
Morgan then takes his place on the bench, which I would suggest is actually his best position, to come on and cause havoc amongst tiring legs on a big pitch with 25 minutes to go.
The selection of the midfield duo is a straight forward shootout between Garyn Smith, Rey Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo. A real tough decision with all three in excellent form.
Lee-Lo has been the main man this season. Switching back and for between 12 and 13, he has been at a consistently high level in both attack and defence, making 20 appearances and scoring 20 tries so far.
Joining him for the majority of the unbeaten run has been Garyn Smith, in his first full season in and around the first XV. A defensive rock from outside centre, Smith has led the defence superbly in tricky games across both the league and Europe, earning rave reviews at a time when the outside centre resources in Wales look a bit thin on the ground.
Willis Halaholo, on the other hand, has only returned from minor knee surgery in the last two games, but looked back to his sidestepping best on Saturday, carrying for 60 metres and almost setting up a try but for a forward pass from Steve Shingler.
My selection: Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo
The duo took some criticism, including from me, earlier on the season over their performances, as they struggled to click in attack and missed too many tackles in defence.
However, on Saturday they were back to their destructive best, working in tandem defensively and providing a constant attacking threat on both crash ball and wider lines, swapping positions with ease to keep the opposition on their toes.
They get the nod for me with Garyn Smith to come off the bench and provide defensive stability late on.
The final berths are out wide, and may be slightly difficult to call with fitness tests taking place later this week.
One position will almost certainly be taken by breakthrough star of the season Owen Lane, though, scoring five tries in his first 10 Guinness Pro14 appearances and being talked about as a potential tourist with Wales this summer.
His opposite winger is the question though, with both Alex Cuthbert and Aled Summerhill’s potential involvement being subject to recovering from injuries.
Blaine Scully filled the 14 shirt last week, and capped off a good performance with a well taken try. Bringing a defensive and aerial presence to the wing he is a solid option, as well as being another leadership figure on the wing.
Of the injured players, Aled Summerhill, has been involved in the majority of the unbeatean run on the opposite wing to Lane, but missed last weekend due to a strained muscle. Although he didn’t get on the scoresheet in that time he was a danger with ball in hand and showed off an improved awareness of defensive positioning.
Finally it’s Alex Cuthbert, who hasn’t featured since the trip to Lyon in January. With a suggestion he might be fit again though, it would be difficult to leave out the man who has scored 45 tries in a Cardiff Blues jersey, including two in the quarter-final last season.
My selection: Owen Lane and Alex Cuthbert (otherwise Blaine Scully)
It’s a no brainer to select Lane, the lad is on fire at the moment and has risen to every challenge placed in front of him so far. On the other wing the romantic in me has won over, with Cuthbert getting the nod if fit to return in a hail of tries after announcing his departure this week. If he doesn’t quite make it, then Captain America is more than capable replacement.
The full Cardiff Rugby Life 23
Gareth Anscombe, Alex Cuthbert/Blaine Scully, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Owen Lane, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Gethin Jenkins, Kris Dacey, Dillon Lewis, George Earle, Seb Davies, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams
Kirby Myhill, Rhys Gill, Scott Andrews, Josh Turnbull, Olly Robinson/Macauley Cook, Lloyd Williams, Garyn Smith, Matthew Morgan