After the elation of winning through to the European Challenge Cup semi-finals last weekend, it is back to business as usual for Cardiff Blues this week, with a big Guinness Pro14 match against Cheetahs.
There are just three rounds to go in the regular season section of the league, and Danny Wilson’s men have plenty to play for. Champions Cup qualification for next season is definitely on the cards, while there is an outside chance of sneaking into this year’s Pro14 end-of-season play-offs.
For the players there are starting berths to be won in that semi-final, and last hurrahs for some of them, with the same going for Danny and Matt Sherratt, who move on to pastures new come the end of the season.
It was never going to be an easy week, re-focusing on the league, but that task has been harder for a number of reasons.
Firstly, embarking on a tour of South Africa isn’t ideal. Obviously it’s something new for the players, which is exciting, but spending time away from families, in tough conditions due to the heat and altitude, and at the end of a long season is not quite the same as Zebre at home on a Saturday afternoon.
Secondly, the travel woes Cardiff Blues have faced this week have been so bad it’s almost comical. Due to leave on Wednesday evening and arrive in Bloemfontein on Thursday morning, the squad finally got to the end of their journey on Friday evening, some 50 hours of travelling, and minus all their bags.
I suspect some members of the backroom staff have noticeably aged this week, while the preparation for the players has gone completely out of the window. The Pro14 kindly pushed the kick-off back due to the issues in shifting halfway across the World, although how much good an extra three hours makes remains to be seen.
The final reason this Saturday presents an especially tough task for Cardiff Blues, is that the opponents are the very competitive Cheetahs, rather than league whipping boys the Kings.
Despite only being in their first Pro14 season, the side from Bloemfontein have really brought something to the league, currently sitting in a play-off place in Conference A, and having scored the third most points and the fourth most tries in the league as a whole.
Their attack focused, fast-paced and expansive offensive game has lit up the league, and on the back of the shocking preparation for the game, Cardiff Blues will find it very hard to defend in the heat and at altitude.
The likes of Clayton Blommetjies and Sibhale Maxane are extremely dangerous open field runners, and are afforded time to pick gaps in the opposition defence by a physical forward pack led by Uzair Cassiem.
With South African international Francois Venter captaining the side from centre, they don’t lack in key players, however, defensively they are one of the weaker sides in the league with only Zebre, Dragons and Kings having conceded more points and tries than them.
Having come into the Pro14 straight off the back of a Super Rugby season, with a Currie Cup campaign overlapping both competitions, they may well be feeling it in their legs by now, so hopefully our travel chaos won’t be so much of an issue.
Cheetahs: Clayton Blommetjies, William Small-Smith, Francois Venter (c), Clinton Swart, Sibhale Maxane, Niel Marais, Tian Meyer; Ox Nche, Torsten van Jaarsveld, Johan Coetzee, Carl Wegner, Reniel Hugo, Paul Schoeman, Oupa Mohoje, Uzair Cassiem
Replacements: Jacques du Toit, Erich de Jager, Tom Botha, Rynier Bernardo, Henco Venter, Zee Mkhabela, Fred Zeilinga, AJ Coertzen
For Cardiff Blues, Danny Wilson will be very pleased to have rotated his squad around after last weekend’s Challenge Cup win and before knowing about the travel chaos that lay in wait.
Eleven changes to the starting XV altogether see Rhys Gill, Kirby Myhill and Anton Peikrishvili start up front in place of the rested Gethin Jenkins, injured Kris Dacey and Dillon Lewis who is named on the bench, while a new look second row has Seb Davies and Damian Welch packing down, with George Earle injured and Josh Turnbull dropping to the bench.
Josh Navidi starts at eight, with Nick Williams left at home this week, while Olly Robinson and Macauley Cook are the flanker pairing as Ellis Jenkins takes a place on the bench.
In the backs there is all-change at half-back, with Lloyd Williams and Gareth Anscombe pairing up, while Garyn Smith steps back into the starting XV at outside centre. There is a welcome return for Alex Cuthbert on the wing, and Matthew Morgan gets the nod at full-back.
Rey Lee-Lo drops to the bench, while Blaine Scully and Jarrod Evans are not included in the 23.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Alex Cuthbert, Garyn Smith, Willis Halaholo, Owen Lane, Gareth Anscombe (c), Lloyd Williams; Rhys Gill, Kirby Myhill, Anton Peikrishvili, Seb Davies, Damian Welch, Macauley Cook, Olly Robinson, Josh Navidi
Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Brad Thyer, Dillon Lewis, Josh Turnbull, Ellis Jenkins, Tomos Williams, Steven Shingler, Rey Lee-Lo
The team selection certainly points to keeping players as fresh as possible by utilising the whole squad during the season run-in, as well as a specific tactic to play Cheetahs of packing the bench.
With the type of game our opposition will try to play, the last 20 minutes will be crucial as the players start to tire in the heat and altitude. Therefore, having the likes of Dillon Lewis, Ellis Jenkins and Rey Lee-Lo to bring on will be a huge boost as the match reaches its closing stages.
However, all other analysis goes out of the window when it comes to Saturday evening, as the travel chaos has put Cardiff Blues firmly on the back foot. It now becomes a mental challenge as much as a physical and tactical challenge.
The players will need to put the last few days out of their mind, forget about the different playing conditions and the fatigue, and produce what would arguably be the performance of the season to get a huge Pro14 win.
This trip will already be remembered for a long time, and if there is a result on the pitch at the end of it, a movie could well be lying in wait. This season has been anything but normal though, so who knows? Come on Cardiff!
Cheetahs form: LLLWW
Cardiff Blues form: WWWWW
Cheetahs top try scorer: Makazole Mapimpi (10)
Cardiff Blues top try scorers: Owen Lane and Matthew Morgan (6)
Cheetahs top points scorer: Fred Zeilinga (86)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (149)
Mike Adamson (SCO) – Refereed our win over Ulster two weeks ago at the Arms Park. Failed to send the Ulster prop off for a swinging arm to the head of Jarrod Evans or check their final try with a suspect foot in touch. Looked quite grumpy throughout the game. Former Scotland 7s international.