Although the wider rugby public’s attention may have switched on to the Autumn Internationals this weekend, the Guinness Pro14 continues as Cardiff Blues welcome Zebre to the Arms Park on Sunday.
On the back of last weekend’s dismal 21-10 defeat at the hands of the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, this game takes on even greater importance than normal as John Mulvihill’s men attempt to stay in touch in the race for the play-offs in Conference A.
Adding to that importance though was the news this week that Sunday will be the last time we see Gethin Jenkins take a rugby field. The loosehead will hang up his boots due to an ongoing knee injury after what will be his 195th Cardiff Blues appearances, adding to 129 Wales caps and five British and Irish Lions test caps.
Melon has been a true legend at both club and representative level, undoubtedly the best loosehead in the world for many years, and revolutionised the way a prop should approach the game, combining strong scrummaging with effect breakdown work and a turn of pace many centres would be pleased with!
In order to give him the send-off he deserves, Cardiff Blues will have to beat a Zebre side with an identical record to ourselves. Three wins and four losses leave the Italians just two points behind us courtesy of a difference in bonus points, and only six points off Connacht in third.
They got the better of us in Parma back in September as our run of three losses to start the season came to a conclusion despite flying out to a 21-0 lead inside 10 minutes. The biggest comeback in Pro14/12/Celtic League history securing victory for the hosts on the day.
However, it will be a very different Zebre we face on Sunday to that we encountered in round three, with eighteen players unavailable to head coach Michael Bradley due to a mix of injury or international call-ups.
They make 11 changes from the side that beat Edinburgh last week, while only two of the starting XV survive from our fixture back in September, Dave Sisi at lock and Tommaso Boni in the centre.
Such is Zebre’s unavailability issue that Bradley has had to call on five permit players from the semi-professional Italian league, as Calvisano’s Antoine Koffi starts at number eight, while Fiamme Oro’s Giovanni D’Onofrio and Jacopo Bianchi start at full-back and flanker respectively.
Replacement hooker Marco Manfredi is also a Calvisano player, while back row cover Davide Ruggeri belongs to l’Accademia Nazionale Ivan Francescato.
Elsewhere, South Africa A international Francois Brummer steps up from full-back to fly-half, while two experienced props start in the shape of Argentinian international Eduardo Bello and former Melbourne Rebel Cruze Ah-Nau.
Zebre: Giovanni D’Onofrio, Gabriele Di Giulio, Tommaso Boni, Nicolas De Battista, Paula Balekana, Francois Brummer, Riccardo Raffaele; Eduardo Bello, Luhandre Luus, Cruze Ah-Nau, Leonard Krumov, David Sisi (c), Apisai Tauyavuca, Jacopo Bianchi, Antoine Koffi
Replacements: Marco Manfredi, Daniele Rimpelli, Roberto Tenga, Samuele Ortis, Davide Ruggeri, Maicol Azzolini, Jamie Elliott, Giovanbattista Venditti
For Cardiff Blues, John Mulvihill has decided against making wholesale changes despite the disappointing nature of last week’s defeat in South Africa, with just four changes to the starting XV.
Up front Brad Thyer and Kirby Myhill join Scott Andrews, while a slight reshuffle in the loose five sees Seb Davies move up to second row in place of Rory Thornton, and Nick Williams starts at number eight.
In the backs the only change is Tom Williams replacing Matthew Morgan at full-back, making his second full debut for Cardiff Blues and a first start for the club since a game against Zebre in March 2013.
Gethin takes a seat on the bench for his last ever game where he is joined by the returning Kristian Dacey, James Down and Harri Milard.
Cardiff Blues: Tom Williams, Aled Summerhill, Garyn Smith, Rey Lee-Lo, Jason Harries, Steve Shingler, Lloyd Williams (c); Brad Thyer, Kirby Myhill, Scott Andrews, George Earle, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kristian Dacey, Gethin Jenkins, Keiron Assiratti, James Down, Samu Manoa, Lewis Jones, Dan Fish, Harri Millard
After the manner of last weeks defeat this week takes on a whole new level of importance in terms of Cardiff blues season and this mini block of fixtures during the international period.
Realistically we have to be aiming for a bonus point win to stay in contention with the likes of Glasgow and Ospreys at the top of Conference A as well as pulling away from the likes of Zebre and Cheetahs.
It will also be a fitting way to send off Gethin Jenkins as he brings an end to his playing career before taking on a coaching role with the Cardiff Blues Academy. He deserves a five point win and a good atmosphere at the Arms Park.
Hopefully the boys can put last week’s performance behind them and get a win before the league takes a mini break during November. Come on Cardiff!
Cardiff Blues form: WWWLL
Zebre form: LLLWW
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Rey Lee-Lo, Tomos Williams (3)
Zebre top try scorers: Carlo Canna, Jim Tuivaiti (2)
Cardiff top points scorer: Gareth Anscombe (79)
Zebre top points scorer: Carlo Canna (66)
George Clancy (IRE) – Everyone’s favourite Irishman! Refereed the reverse fixture and also our win over Cheetahs at home, in fact this will be his third straight Pro14 game with Cardiff Blues one of the participating teams.