This Saturday sees Cardiff Blues play what is arguably the most important fixture of the season so far as Connacht come to the Arms Park in a Conference A clash.
The Guinness Pro14 league table shows John Mulvihill’s men five points behind the Irish side and the Ospreys at the start of the weekend, knowing that a loss on Saturday will stretch the deficit between ourselves and third place to seven points in the very best case scenario.
That would leave us a very steep uphill battle to return to the Heineken Champions Cup automatically, especially with a trip to Connacht and the Ospreys to play at Judgement Day still to come, as well as away games at Edinburgh and Munster.
There is good news for Cardiff Blues in that they are off the back of a successful season against the Galway-based team last year, as a stunning late Jarrod Evans kick in Ireland and Owen Lane’s first try at the Arms Park, secured the double.
Connacht are in good form coming into the encounter though, after a slightly uneven start that saw them win three from the opening six, they are now on a run of just two losses in the last 10 games dating back to the beginning of November, including beating Cheetahs away and Ulster in an inter-provincial game.
Last weekend saw the Irish side beat Bordeaux in France to secure a European Challenge Cup quarter-final tie away at Sale Sharks at the end of March, capping off a pool stage that resulted in five wins and just a single loss.
With the Ireland national side heading off for a pre-Six Nations camp in Portugal, Connacht are missing six players with Quinn Roux, Ultan Dillane, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty, Tom Farrell and Bundee Aki all called up, while head coach Andy Friend makes four other changes.
There is still experience to call upon though as front rowers Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham have Ireland caps, while back rowers Colby Fainga’a and captain Jarrad Butler have Super Rugby game time under their belt.
Fly-half David Horwitz has also played a few seasons of Super Rugby, while centre Kyle Godwin is a one-time Australian international, and Matt Healy and Tiernan O’Halloran have Irish caps in the back three.
It is an inexperienced bench however, with Matthew Burke, Paul Boyle and Conor Fitzgerald all members of the Connacht Academy.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Cian Kelleher, Kyle Godwin, Tom Daly, Matt Healy, David Horwitz, James Mitchell; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, James Cannon, Cillian Gallagher, Eoin McKeon, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler (c)
Replacements: Tom McCartney, Matthew Burke, Dominic Robertson McCoy, Joe Maksymiw, Paul Boyle, Angus Lloyd, Conor Fitzgerald, Stephen Fitzgerald
On the other side, Cardiff Blues are suffering with similar lack-of-internationals issues, with Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Josh Navidi, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe all retained by the Wales national team this weekend.
Three other changes to the starting XV see Brad Thyer replace Rhys Carre at tighthead, Kris Dacey returns from injury to captain the side from hooker in place of Liam Belcher, and George Earle start at second row ahead of Macauley Cook.
Elsewhere, Shane Lewis-Hughes makes his first start at the Arms Park and in the Guinness Pro14 at blindside, while Matthew Morgan is selected at full-back ahead of Dan Fish and Tom Williams.
The bench sees an opportunity for James Botham to potentially make his debut after returning from injury and spending time in the Cardiff RFC ranks.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Owen Lane, Harri Millard, Rey Lee-Lo, Aled Summerhill, Steven Shingler, Lloyd Williams; Brad Thyer, Kristian Dacey (c), Dmitri Arhip, George Earle, Rory Thornton, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams
Replacements: Liam Belcher, Rhys Carré, Scott Andrews, Macauley Cook, James Botham, Lewis Jones, Dan Fish, Willis Halaholo
A must-win game if Cardiff Blues are going to stay properly in the hunt for third place in Conference A in the Guinness Pro14, as well as get this block of fixtures through the Six Nations period off on the right foot.
The league season thus far has been rife with inconsistency, with four wins across the end of September/start of October followed by the disappointment of defeat away at Cheetahs, before wins over Dragons and Scarlets were followed by the loss at Ospreys.
Now is the time to put a serious run of wins together, starting on Saturday with the weather forecast looking quite poor.
The kicking games of Lloyd Williams and Steve Shingler will be crucial in giving us field position to strike from, while the weather should take away Connacht’s running game, but we’ll still have to eliminate their set piece strength.
It’s a strong team despite the internationals missing though, and there has to be a confidence taken from last week’s win to get the job done. Come on Cardiff!
Cardiff Blues form: WWLLW
Connacht form: LWLWW
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Rey Lee-Lo (8)
Connacht top try scorer: Kyle Godwin (4)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Gareth Anscombe (140)
Connacht top points scorer: Jack Carty (56)
Mike Adamson (SCO) – The former Glasgow scrum-half has refereed Cardiff Blues on four occasions in his career, resulting in two wins and two losses. He has refereed 12 games so far this season, showing 13 yellow cards and no red cards.