The Guinness Pro14 returns to action this weekend as Cardiff Blues fly out for this season’s South African trip to Bloemfontein in an important all-Conference A clash.
It comes on the back of last week’s disappointing 12-29 Heineken Champions Cup defeat at the hands of Glasgow Warriors which put us on the back foot in Europe, but the squad will need to bounce back quickly in this Autumn Internationals block of fixtures.
More often than not in an end of season review, how a team shows of it’s strength in depth when international players are away is a big factor in final league positions. It’s the reason why the big Irish teams, Glasgow and Scarlets have been so successful in recent years.
For too long Cardiff Blues have struggled in this part of the season, when international call-ups and injuries hit, but that needs to change if we are to continue our hunt for a Pro14 play-off spot. We need to hit the ground running in this block as well, with trips to Glasgow and Ulster coming up at the end of the month.
To do that we’ll have to win in Bloemfontein, where we came so close to snatching a victory back in April.
After a nightmare flight over to South Africa, the home side started quicker and raced out to a 20-5 lead at half-time, however tries from Owen Lane, Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo put us 22-27 up as the clock turned red.
Unfortunately a series of late Cheetahs scrums on our five metre line eventually ended up with a penalty try for the hosts and heartbreak in the 88th minute for Cardiff Blues.
Since then it’s been all change in Free State, with a coaching change, 19 departures and 22 new faces. Upheaval on that scale has clearly taken it’s toll, with Cheetahs currently bottom of Conference A courtesy of five losses in six games. Only a draw at home to Ulster has seen them avoid a 0-6 record.
The South African side have had three weeks off since losing in Edinburgh last time out courtesy of not playing in European competition, and are able to welcome back the experienced Shaun Venter who captains them from scrum-half.
Five other changes to that XV which played in Scotland see hooker Joseph Dweba, second row Walt Steenkamp and blindside flanker Gerhard Olivier come into a pack that includes Springbok loosehead Ox Nche.
In the backs there is a nod for full-back Malcolm Jaer, while former Sharks and South Africa Sevens international will make his Cheetahs debut on the wing.
Toyota Cheetahs: Malcolm Jaer, Rhyno Smith, Benhard Janse van Rensburg, William Small-Smith, Sibahle Maxwane, Tian Schoeman, Shaun Venter (c); Ox Nche, Joseph Dweba, Johannes Coetzee, Walt Steenkamp, JP du Preez, Gerhard Olivier, Junior Pokamela, Neil Jordaan
Replacements: Reinach Venter, Charles Marais, Erich de Jager, Sinthu Manjezi, Abongile Nonkontwana, Tian Meyer, Louis Fouche, Nico Lee
For Cardiff Blues, who arrived in South Africa without delay on Tuesday morning this time around, John Mulvihill has made nine changes to the team which lose to Glasgow last week.
Many are enforced, with Dillon Lewis, Ellis Jenkins, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe called up into the Wales squad, while Kris Dacey has been rested and left at home.
As a result, Ethan Lewis is in at hooker, Scott Andrews starts at tighthead, Olly Robinson switches across to the openside as part of a back row reshuffle, Lloyd Williams and Steve Shingler form a new half-back pairing and Matthew Morgan is in at full-back.
Elsewhere, Rory Thornton comes in at second row with Josh Turnbull reverting to blindside flanker, Seb Davies returns from injury and is preferred to Nick Williams at number eight, and Garyn Smith starts at centre with Willis Halaholo dropping to the bench.
Joining the hot stepper amongst the replacements are three returnees to the first team squad, with Lewis Jones having not featured since Judgement Day, Liam Belcher returning from a year with Dragons, and Dan Fish finally getting a chance at Pro14 action after a horror hamstring injury against Connacht in November 2016.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Jason Harries, Garyn Smith, Rey Lee-Lo, Aled Summerhill, Steve Shingler, Lloyd Williams (c); Brad Thyer, Ethan Lewis, Scott Andrews, George Earle, Rory Thornton, Josh Turnbull, Olly Robinson, Seb Davies
Replacements: Liam Belcher, Rhys Gill, Keiron Assiratti, Samu Manoa, Nick Williams, Lewis Jones, Dan Fish, Willis Halaholo
It’s undoubtedly a weaker Cardiff Blues squad than John Mulvihill would have liked to have taken to South Africa, especially with Cheetahs still dangerous despite their results so far this season.
They pushed us all the way at Cardiff Arms Park last month, and were very disappointed not to come away with a win after leading 10-21 at the hour mark. However, late tries from Lloyd Williams and Olly Robinson secured a 24-21 Cardiff Blues win.
At home they have the benefit of playing at altitude which takes it out of opposition teams, as does the heat, with the thermometer set to tip 31C in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
It will take a huge effort for Cardiff Blues to come away with a win, but we have the quality out there to get it.
If the forwards can step up and get us go-forward ball there is strike running capability in the backs, while Steve Shingler’s big boot needs to be firing to put us in the right field position and prevent Cheetahs from flexing their sizeable counter attacking muscles.
A win here and at home to Zebre next week puts us in a great position heading into a tough December and January schedule, and would be the perfect tonic to last week’s disappointing loss. Come on Cardiff!
Cheetahs form: LLDLL
Cardiff Blues form: WWWWL
Cheetahs top try scorer: Sibhale Maxwane (3)
Cardiff Blues top try scorers: Rey Lee-Lo, Tomos Williams (3)
Cheetahs top points scorer: Tiaan Schoeman (21)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Gareth Anscombe (79)
Lloyd Linton (SCO) – The qualified doctor hasn’t refereed Cardiff Blues since sin binning the wrong Shingler brother against Scarlets in October 2016.
A year away from Pro14 refereeing after that ended last season, and so far this year he has officiated Zebre v Connacht and Scarlets v Benetton, showing three yellow cards and one red card.