Saturday night sees Cardiff Blues mini-Italian tour come to an end as we take on Zebre at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi looking to bounce back from last week’s defeat at the hands of Benetton.
It was the second last-gasp defeat suffered by John Mulvihill’s men in a week, as a five-point lead going into the last few minutes of the game was lost thanks to Monty Ioane’s late try and Tommaso Allan’s conversion, after Leinster had overcome a 15-point deficit at the Arms Park in round one.
That leaves this weekend’s game as an early ‘must-win’ encounter, as Cardiff Blues still hunt for that elusive first Guinness Pro14 win of the season. A confidence boost is needed ahead of two all-Conference A clashes against Munster and Cheetahs to round off September.
As we found out last week though, wins in Italy are no longer foregone conclusions, and Zebre will prove stern opposition despite being the weaker of the two Southern European sides on paper.
The Parma-based team have a win and a loss to their name so far, having overcome the Kings in Italy in round one before falling to Connacht in typical Galway weather last week, and will be looking to generate some momentum before taking on Dragons at Rodney Parade next weekend.
This comes after last season’s performance which, although saw them finishing bottom of Conference A, ended with seven wins for Zebre, their best since joining the league.
Head coach Michael Bradley has kept the key members of his squad together over the summer, largely adding players from the Italian domestic scene, although Edoardo Padovani has returned from an ill-fated stint at Toulon, to give them a settled feel heading into the 2018/19 campaign.
They will hope to break out of a mini-losing streak they are on the wrong end of against Cardiff Blues though, with Wales’ capital region having down the double over Zebre in both of the last two season.
Last year that came courtesy of a comfortable 37-8 win at the Arms Park, before a scrappier 7-10 victory in Italy was secured thanks to a try from Owen Lane and a defensive performance including 174 tackles.
That game was during the Six Nations though, so this season’s encounter during the Six Nations and early in the campaign on a better quality of playing surface should be a different kettle of fish, especially as Zebre have named 11 Italian internationals in their starting XV.
The entire backline, led by fly-half Carlo Canna, has been capped by the Azzurri while of the four forwards who haven’t played international rugby, Dave Sisi has experience of the Gallagher Premiership, while Johan Meyer has played Currie Cup.
Zebre: Edoardo Padovani, Mattia Bellini, Giulio Bisegni, Tommaso Boni, Giovanbattista Venditti, Carlo Canna, Marcello Violi; Andrea Lovotti, Massimo Ceciliani, Dario Chistolini, David Sisi, George Biagi (c), Jimmy Tuivaiti, Renato Giammarioli, Johan Meyer
Replacements: Oliviero Fabiani, Daniele Rimpelli, Giosué Zilocchi, Apisai Tauyavuca, Giovanni Licata, Guglielmo Palazzani, Francois Brummer, Tommaso Castello
Cardiff Blues, meanwhile, can boast 10 internationals of our own in the starting XV, as John Mulvihill hands first starts of the season to Dillon Lewis, Josh Navidi, Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe, as part of six changes to the side that lose in Treviso last week.
The other changes come in the form of Olly Robinson, who captains the side, starting on the flank, while Garyn Smith lines up in midfield after being an unused replacement last week.
There are new faces on the bench too as Kirby Myhill and Harri Millard are selected, alongside Rhys Carre and Macauley Cook who step up from Cardiff Blues A, with Carre set to make his Pro14 debut if he comes in after impressing for Wales U20 in the last two years.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Jason Harries, Garyn Smith, Rey Lee-Lo, Owen Lane, Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Brad Thyer, Kristian Dacey, Dillon Lewis, George Earle, Rory Thornton, Josh Turnbull, Olly Robinson (c), Josh Navidi
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Rhys Carre, Dmitri Arhip, Macauley Cook, Nick Williams, Lloyd Williams, Jarrod Evans, Harri Millard
So the changes that Mulvihill was expected to make after the disappointing performance against Benetton last week, plus some. It’s great to see him put faith in the youth of Smith, Carre and Millard, as well as not being afraid to drop some big name players to remind them of the levels required.
With an agile back row of Turnbull, Robinson and Navidi there’s a nod to the defensive game that will need to be perfected against a Zebre side full of running, especially after last week’s shortcomings in this area, while the return of Anscombe to fly-half will add some much needed control to the attacking game.
Matthew Morgan retains his place at full-back with counter attacking opportunities likely to present themselves throughout the game, while Garyn Smith’s introduction will add some bite to the defensive line speed, as well as some hard and direct running from outside centre.
A bench loaded with the power of Carre, Arhip, Cook and Big Nick will then be introduced to see out the game, with the game management experience of Lloyd Williams ready to relieve the still learning Tomos at scrum-half.
There’s no doubt that a result is absolutely key on Saturday night. A win at the very least, a bonus point win to make absolutely sure of it, but the performance is what will add real confidence to the squad going forward.
Elements of our game over the last two weeks have been promising; first phase attack and defensive commitment against Leinster, the set piece against Zebre, but they need to come together to provide a platform to kick-start the season from.
We’re looking for a reaction, confirmation that last week was the one-off, and that the players and coaches are up for the challenge ahead. Come on Cardiff!!
Zebre form: WL
Cardiff Blues form: LL
Zebre top try scorers: Oliviero Fabiani, Mattia Bellini, Jimmy Tuivaiti, Apisai Tauyavuca, Guglielmo Palazzani (1)
Cardiff Blues top try scorers: Rey Lee-Lo, Jason Harries (2)
Zebre top points scorer: Carlo Canna (18)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (21)
George Clancy (IRE) – The last time we won a game with the Irishman refereeing was in September 2016. The last victory away from home was in 2007. It’s not a great omen, he’s not a great referee.