Preview: Cardiff Blues v Leinster Rugby

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For the first time since that famous night in Bilbao, European Challenge Cup champions Cardiff Blues return to action on Friday night as the Guinness Pro14 gets underway.

The visitors had an even more successful end to the season though, as Leinster won both the Heineken Cup and the Pro14, taking the title as the undisputed best team in Europe in the process. You could say it’s the battle of the European champions.

Not a bad way to kick off the season at the Arms Park, and indeed a new era in the club’s history, as John Mulvihill takes charge of his first competitive Cardiff Blues game with the assistance of Jason Strange, Tom Smith and familiar faces Duane Goodfield and Richard Hodges.

John Mulvihill
John Mulvihill will take charge of his first Cardiff Blues game

Mulvihill has been keen to stress during the pre-season that last season’s successes were not his and that he wants to earn his own trophies and titles, but he will no doubt want to continue the run of form that has seen us go undefeated at the Arms Park in first team games this calendar year.

To do that a lengthy duck will have to be broken though, as Cardiff Blues are now 14 straight games without a win against Leinster dating back to February 2011.

That day it was a try from Dan Fish and two penalties from Ceri Sweeney that secured an 11-3 win at the Cardiff City Stadium, with the last victory over Leinster at the Arms Park coming way back in May 2007 thanks to tries from Gareth Williams, Robin Sowden-Taylor, Marc Sterchbina and Rhys Williams.

However, that could all be forgotten on Friday night in a game between two sides that won’t be particularly familiar to each other.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen finds his hand forced somewhat in team selection, as the way that Irish Rugby works means that the internationals who represented the Emerald Isle are not available to the Provinces for the first few weeks of the season.

leo-cullen-leinster
Leo Cullen was named 2017/18 Pro14 coach of the year

With the league and European champions providing 17 players to Joe Schmidt’s squad that toured Australia this summer, they are missing a number of star names including Jack McGrath, James Ryan, Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they will be under-strength when they come to the Arms Park on Friday though, as 10 of the 23 are Irish interationals including young winger Adam Byrne, scrum-half Luke McGrath and back-rower Rhys Ruddock.

With Wallabies Scott Fardy and debutant Joe Tomane also in the starting XV, as well as Maori All Black Jamison Gibson-Park on the replacements bench, there is plenty of quality in the Leinster squad that comes to South Wales.

Leinster Rugby: Dave Kearney, Adam Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin, Joe Tomane, Barry Daly, Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath; Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Michael Bent, Ross Molony, Scott Fardy, Josh Murphy, Rhys Ruddock (c), Caelan Doris

Replacements: Bryan Byrne, Ed Byrne, Andrew Porter, Mick Kearney, Max Deegan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Noel Reid, Fergus McFadden

Caelan Doris Leinster
Caelan Doris makes his first Pro14 start for Leinster

Cardiff Blues, on the other hand, run a slightly more familiar squad for supporters, with nine of the starting XV on Friday also appearing in the line-up that started in Bilbao back in May.

Kris Dacey, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams and Rey Lee-Lo start despite not appearing at all in pre-season, while Dmitri Arhip, Rory Thornton and Jason Harries make their first competitive starts after arriving over the summer.

There are some interesting selection decisions as Brad Thyer gets the nod over Rhys Gill at loosehead and Scott Andrews is selected ahead of Dillon Lewis as tighthead cover on the bench where he is joined by George Earle, Olly Robinson and Garyn Smith.

John Mulvihill does have to contend with unavailability as well, with Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Josh Navidi and Jack Roberts on the injury list, while Gareth Anscombe and Samu Manoa are not yet sharp enough to play after returning late to pre-season.

Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Jason Harries, Willis Halaholo, Rey Lee-Lo, Owen Lane, Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams; Brad Thyer, Kris Dacey, Dmitri Arhip, Seb Davies, Rory Thornton, Josh Turnbull, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams

Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Rhys Gill, Scott Andrews, George Earle, Olly Robinson, Tomos Williams, Steve Shingler, Garyn Smith

Ellis Jenkins Benetton
Ellis Jenkins starts as club captain for the first time

It’s a strong side on paper for Cardiff Blues, but there is the unknown of how the team will perform under John Mulvihill as the Australian looks to stamp his style on the tactical side of the squad.

Pre-season outings have been an intriguing mixture of positives and negatives, and the team itself comes into the season with the pressure of being Challenge Cup champions and the increased expectations that brings from supporters and pundits.

Leinster, despite missing their internationals, will still cause big problems. They will play with the recognised style that has served the province and Ireland well in the last two years, holding onto the ball for long periods and trying to force ill-discipline in our defence.

Add in any creative influence that the recruitment of Felipe Contepomi as a coach will bring, and they will be a danger in possession, as well as traditionally organised in defence.

As a season opener, the supporters and television companies could not ask for a better fixture, but particularly the Cardiff Blues players should be so excited by the opportunity presented.

There would be no better tone setter than beating the defending champions and taking a confidence boosting win into two Italian trips in rounds two and three. The Arms Park is set to be rocking, and the anticipation is building. Come on Cardiff!

Ref Watch

Nigel Owens (WAL) – Showtime Nige refereed us on three occasions last season, a home win over Dragons and away defeats against Glasgow and Ospreys. On each occasion he sin binned a Cardiff Blues player, and he issued Fa’ao Filise with just the third red card of the Tongan’s career in Scotland.

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