It’s that time of year again as rivalries re-commence and the festive derbies return to Wales, with Cardiff Blues welcoming Dragons to the Arms Park to start the season of ‘goodwill’.
After two weeks of Heineken Champions Cup action against Gallagher Premiership champions Saracens, it’s a massively important fixture block for John Mulvihill’s men in the bid to make the Guinness Pro14 play-offs as the likes of Ospreys and Connacht threaten to pull away from us.
Those two games against Sarries should give the squad confidence despite not throwing up any points, as we won two of four halves against the English powerhouses, and might have snuck a result in last weekend’s home game but for some clever play by the visitors when down to 14 men and some suspect refereeing decisions.
There is also confidence to be taken from the records of the opposition, with Dragons still on a losing streak away from home in the league that stretches back to March 2015, a record for the Pro14.
This season has been one of their worst yet, with only home wins over Zebre, Kings and Edinburgh to show for it, leaving them just one point above the South African side at the bottom of the league’s conference B. Only Zebre have scored fewer points, and only Kings and Cheetahs and conceded more.
The last three games have seen them concede a total of 156 points, however they will be able to take some confidence from going down to Clermont and scoring three tries at the famous Stade Marcel Michelin.
Of course the big news in recent weeks is that Bernard Jackman has been relieved of his duties as head coach in the last two weeks, and although Shaun Edwards was linked with the job on a temporary basis, it has now been announced that assistant coach Ceri Jones will take charge until a permanent replacement is found in January.
His first Welsh derby as temporary boss will see him without two key players as Ross Moriarty is ruled out with a concussion, while Ollie Griffiths is still missing with a knee injury that is likely to keep him out of action until the New Year.
As a result there is some back row re-shuffling with Harrison Keddie starting at number eight, Aaron Wainwright will play on the openside while Cory Hill, a second row by trade, will captain the team from the blindside.
Lloyd Fairbrother is selected at tighthead while Wales cap Elliot Dee and Samoan lock Brandon Nansen bring some international experience to the front five. The experience of Richard Hibbard and Aaron Jarvis provide front row cover from the bench.
In the backs there is no Gavin Henson but Rhodri Williams returns to partner Josh Lewis at half-back, Jarryd Sage and Aaron Warren form the centre partnership, while flying winger Jared Rosser is picked on the wing, opposite Hallam Amos who has been linked with a summer switch to Cardiff Blues.
Dragons: Zane Kirchner, Jared Rosser, Adam Warren, Jarryd Sage, Hallam Amos, Josh Lewis, Rhodri Williams; Ryan Bevington, Elliot Dee, Lloyd Fairbrother, Brandon Nansen, Matthew Screech, Cory Hill (c), Aaron Wainwright, Harrison Keddie
Replacements: Richard Hibbard, Gerard Ellis, Aaron Jarvis, Lewis Evans, Nic Cudd, Tavis Knoyle, Jason Tovey, Jordan Williams
On the opposing side, Cardiff Blues head coach John Mulvihill has spoken this week about how pleasing it is to be able to name a settled side, gaining some momentum after the chopping and changing over the last few weeks.
There are just three changes to the starting XV with Dillon Lewis and Scott Andrews exchanging spots at tighthead, while Olly Robinson replaces the injured Samu Manoa in the back row. James Down comes onto the bench with Josh Turnbull and Seb Davies able to slide back from the second row if necessary.
Tomos Williams recovers from injury to start at scrum-half in what is the only change in the backs, while Lloyd Williams also is back in the matchday squad and takes a seat on the bench.
Kris Dacey captains the side for the first time as interim skipper, taking over this week after Ellis Jenkins’ knee injury ruled him out for the rest of the season.
Cardiff Blues: Dan Fish, Blaine Scully, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Garyn Smith, Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey (c), Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Josh Navidi, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Brad Thyer, Scott Andrews, George Earle, James Down, Lloyd Williams, Steven Shingler, Matthew Morgan
It is clear from the respective team selections where each sides believe their strongest skillsets lie when it comes to this Welsh derby, and they appear to be in completely different areas.
Opting to name Hill at flanker suggests Dragons are coming to the Arms Park to be physical up front. They’ll look to get the upper hand at the scrum and expect plenty of kicks into the corner to setup a catch and drive, something which Cardiff Blues have not been particularly brilliant at defending in recent weeks.
On the other hand, our lightweight side suggests our aim is to keep the ball in play as much as possible, moving Dragons around the park and showing off some attacking flair. Fingers crossed the weather stays as settled as possible, as a shortened game may well go against us.
The key for Cardiff Blues will be to try and establish some dominance in the carrying game in an attempt to play off front foot, especially with Tomos Williams back at scrum-half. The last few weeks the attack has been a touch lacklustre, no time like the present to put that right.
More than that though, it’s a great chance to put one over on our rivals and make it nine straight wins against the Dragons. Let’s kick this important festive period off in style. Come on Cardiff!
Cardiff Blues form: WLLLL
Dragons form: LWLLL
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Rey Lee-Lo (6)
Dragons top try scorers: Elliot Dee, Ollie Griffiths (3)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Gareth Anscombe (92)
Dragons top points scorer: Josh Lewis (44)
Frank Murphy (IRE) – The former Connacht and Leinster scrum-half has refereed us on five previous occasions with three wins and two losses.