European action returns to our lives this weekend, and although it is the daunting challenge of facing Saracens in the first of a double header, it’s what we’ve been waiting for since 2013!
Five years since our last Heineken Cup double header in December, the Gallagher Premiership champions and two-time European champions, are the hosts on Sunday as Cardiff Blues get the chance to test ourselves against one of the best in the Northern Hemisphere.
It is a long time since a Cardiff side has gone up against Saracens outside of development cup competition, with the last meeting coming in October 2000’s Heineken Cup double header when the Blue and Blacks secured two wins.
The first was on the road at the then home of Sarries, Vicarage Road belonging to Watford Football Club, when ALP Lewis, Craig Quinnell, Rob Howley and Pieter Muller secured the victory in a bad tempered affair that saw five yellow cards handed out.
Since then the English side have overcome inconsistency in the early part of the century, winning the Premiership four times, finishing runners-up three times, winning the Heineken Cup twice, finishing runners-up once and winning an Anglo-Welsh Cup all since 2009.
Last season was a slight disappointment in that, although they won the Gallagher Premiership once again, beating Exeter Chiefs in the final, they were knocked out of the Heineken Cup at the quarter-final stage by eventual champions Leinster after finishing runners-up in their pool.
As a result, the backlash has come this season with Saracens on 11 wins from 11 games across the league and Europe, sitting top of the Premiership just the 14 points ahead of third place Gloucester.
They were also top of our pool three after the first two rounds, securing a close win in Glasgow before hammering Lyon at Allianz Park.
Mark McCall makes four changes to his side that beat Wasps comfortably last week, and although he is without Maro Itoje, Liam Williams, Billy Vunipola, Christopher Tolofua and Duncan Taylor, there are still 12 internationals in the starting XV.
Mako Vunipola returns from injury at loosehead prop while Nick Isiekwe steps in at lock and the immensely experienced Schalk Burger starts on the flank. They join the likes of Jamie George, Will Skelton and Vincent Koch in a strong pack.
Behind them there is a recall for England fly-half Owen Farrell at 10 which sees Alex Goode slide back to 15. Brad Barritt captains the team from inside centre, with the exciting talent of Alex Lozowski outside him at 13.
Saracens: Alex Goode, Sean Maitland, Alex Lozowski, Brad Barritt (c), Alex Lewington, Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Vincent Koch, Nick Isiekwe, Will Skelton, Mike Rhodes, Schalk Burger, Jackson Wray
Replacements: Tom Woolstencroft, Richard Barrington, Christian Judge, Dom Day, Calum Clark, Ben Earl, Ben Spencer, Nick Tompkins
Cardiff Blues meanwhile come into the game off the back of two Pro14 defeats at the hands of Glasgow and Ulster, with injuries stacking up as Kris Dacey, Dmitri Arhip, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, Tomos Williams, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill all among those on the unavailable list.
In response to this, particularly with both first choice centres out, John Mulvihill has gone for the jugular with Gareth Anscombe returning at fly-half, Jarrod Evans shifting out to 12, Harri Millard remaining at 13 and Matthew Morgan continuing at full-back.
It is a completely unexpected team selection, although Mulvihill did say during the work they are working on a surprise tactic, and it seems that will include running the ball a lot with two 10s and Matthew Morgan on the field.
Up front Kirby Myhill and Dillon Lewis join former Saracen Rhys Gill in the front row, and Nick Williams is preferred as an impact option off the bench meaning George Earle starts at lock, Josh Turnbull reverts to the blindside and Samu Manoa switches to eight.
On the bench there are recalls for Ethan Lewis, Brad Thyer, Macauley Cook, Lewis Jones and Steven Shingler.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Blaine Scully, Harri Millard, Jarrod Evans, Jason Harries, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams (c); Rhys Gill, Kirby Myhill, Dillon Lewis, George Earle, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Olly Robinson, Samu Manoa
Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Brad Thyer, Scott Andrews, Macauley Cook, Nick Williams, Lewis Jones, Steven Shingler, Garyn Smith
How that surprise tactic will work in practice remains to be seen. In a sense credit has to go to Mulvihill just for having the bottle to name a side like that in what is arguably our toughest fixture of the season, but he’s taking a big risk if it blows up in his face.
Having the double, or even triple, playmaker setup should hopefully provide opportunity to get the speed of Harri Millard, Matthew Morgan and Jason Harries into some open space, but there is big danger in defence.
Neither Gareth Anscombe or Jarrod Evans shirk contact without the ball, but it will be a big afternoon for them with Brad Barritt barreling down their channel on a crash ball line. Olly Robinson will need to have a big afternoon to get across and cover them.
The selection certainly provides some intrigue for travelling supporters though who may have otherwise travelled to Allianz Park with a sense of impending doom, especially with the game falling on the anniversary of THAT game away at Sale last season.
Whatever happens it is a great opportunity for the players to test themselves against one of the best in Europe and hopefully the bold team selection is followed by some bold performances. Come on Cardiff!
Saracens form: WWWWW
Cardiff Blues form: LLWLL
Saracens top try scorer: Alex Lewington (8)
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Rey Lee-Lo (5)
Saracens top points scorer: Owen Farrell (86)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Gareth Anscombe (79)
Romain Poite (FRA) – Cardiff Blues have an excellent record with the Frenchman refereeing European games, with four wins and just a single defeat coming from his five matches that included the Challenge Cup semi-final win over Wasps in 2010.