The final game of the mini-South Africa tour also doubles up as the penultimate round of the Guinness Pro14 regular season this weekend, as Cardiff Blues face Southern Kings at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
After last weekend’s brave second half comeback against the Cheetahs, which was ultimately dashed by an 87th minute penalty try, the squad have spent a week in Cape Town with plenty of time to relax and recuperate around training, following the travel chaos that preceded the game in Bloemfontein.
Reinforcements have joined the squad out in South Africa, and all players have made it to Port Elizabeth on time, as the team look to secure a win in their last away game of the season and, after results last night, seal Champions Cup qualification for next year.
Ospreys losing out to Ulster means that even a draw or two losing bonus points would likely secure a return to the top table of European rugby, but a win would put it beyond all doubt.
It would be a huge achievement to qualify after the turbulence of last summer’s financial issues, the poor start to the season, the head coach announcing his departure and the ongoing distraction of the lease negotiations, but would be a credit to the hard work put in by Danny Wilson, his coaching staff and all the players.
On top of that a win to cap off the South African tour would be a timely boost ahead of next weekend’s European Challenge Cup semi-final at an Arms Park that looks increasingly likely to sell-out.
However, overcoming the Kings at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium shouldn’t be taken for granted, as Munster, Treviso and Dragons have all found to varying degrees in the last three games to take place in Port Elizabeth.
Munster found themselves 14-3 down early on last week, before fighting back to claim the win, while Kings took two losing bonus points in a narrow defeat to Treviso, and claimed a comfortable bonus point win over Dragons, scoring an aggregate 102 points in the process.
Utilising a similar running game to Cheetahs they are an attacking threat from anywhere on the pitch, however they are let down badly by what is comfortably the worst defence in the Pro14.
Kings have conceded 150 points more than the next worst defence, currently shipping an average of nearly 40 points per match, as well as conceding 24 more tries than the next worst defence, at an average of 5.5 tries against per match.
After that defeat to Munster last week, Kings head coach Deon Davids has made five changes to his starting XV, including fly-half where Ntabeni Dukisa gets the nod over Martin Du Toit.
Elsehwere, second top try scorer Luzuko Vulindlu is selected at outside centre, while Rossouw De Klerk comes in at tighthead prop, Lubabalo Mtyanda starts behind him in the second row and Lusanda Badiyana will pack down at blindside flanker.
Southern Kings: Masixole Banda, Michael Makase, Luzuko Vulindlu, Berton Klaasen, Yaw Penxe, Ntabeni Dukisa, Godlen Masimla; Schalk Ferreira (c), Stephan Coetzee, Rossouw De Klerk, Bobby De Wee, Lubabalo Mtyanda, Lusanda Badiyana, Martinus Burger, Ruaan Lerm
Replacements: Tango Balekile, Justin Forwood, Luvuyo Pupuma, Lindokuhle Welemu, Khaya Majola, Rudi Van Rooyen, Alshaun Bock, Harlon Klassen
For Cardiff Blues there is yet another week of changes to the starting XV, as Danny Wilson reverts back to a more usual starting XV after resting a number of first team players against Cheetahs last weekend.
Josh Turnbull, Nick Williams, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Rey Lee-Lo, Blaine Scully and Gareth Anscombe all return to the side after either being on the bench or sitting out last weekend’s game, while Scott Andrews gets the nod to start at tighthead over Anton Peikirhsvili and Dillon Lewis.
The bench is mostly filled by players who have dropped out of the starting XV from last week, as Damian Welch, Olly Robinson, Lloyd Williams, Matthew Morgan and Garyn Smith all prepare to make an impact towards the end of the game.
Cardiff Blues: Gareth Anscombe, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Blaine Scully, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Rhys Gill, Kirby Myhill, Scott Andrews, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins (c), Nick Williams
Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Brad Thyer, Anton Peikrishvili, Damian Welch, Olly Robinson, Lloyd Williams, Garyn Smith, Matthew Morgan
With an eye on getting players ready for next week’s semi-final Danny Wilson has named a strong side to take on the worst team in the league, but with Champions Cup qualification now on the line, it signals an intent to secure that fourth spot before Judgement Day in the final round of the season.
The second half against Cheetahs last week was more than enough evidence that we have the defensive system to counter-act the attacking style of the South African sides, while we know we have more than enough firepower to blast through the weak defence of the Kings.
This week the key will be to start well. After the travel issues last week it was obvious the players were feeling it in their legs, and blew two try scoring opportunities as well as shipping three tries before half-time, rendering the second half comeback ultimately futile, refereeing performance aside.
If Cardiff Blues can get well out ahead before the break comes this weekend, it will be difficult to see them giving up the lead, despite Kings having form for attacking right the way through the game. Keeping possession and controlling the tempo should pay dividends to prevent Kings from persistently running, and to open up gaps in their defence.
To wrap up Champions Cup qualification with a round to go would be a huge boost ahead of the next two weeks, and there’s no reason the players shouldn’t be able to do that before a celebration at CAP next weekend. Come on Cardiff!
Kings form: LLWLL
Cardiff Blues form: WWWWL
Kings top try scorer: Yaw Penxe (5)
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Owen Lane (6)
Kings top points scorer: Kurt Coleman (41)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (149)
Sean Gallagher (IRE) – Just this referee’s ninth Pro14 game sees him travel to Port Elizabeth for the second time this season, having refereed a defeat to Zebre in November. Has officiated a Cardiff Blues game once previously, which was a win over Zebre on this occasion.