After last week’s Wales Grand Slam win, domestic resumes on Friday night as Cardiff Blues welcome Scarlets to the Arms Park in a key Guinness Pro14 clash.
Of course interest is high as each side welcomes back members of the Six Nations squad to their matchday 23s, but the game itself is a massive one in terms of qualifying for the play-offs in the respective conferences.
For Cardiff Blues we are currently fourth in Conference A, only behind Connacht courtesy of having a slightly worse points difference, with the Irish side hosting the in-form Benetton at the Sportsground also on Friday night.
Scarlets, on the other hand, are in an even closer conference, sitting fourth in Conference B four points behind Ulster in third, five points behind second placed Benetton and three points ahead of Edinburgh below them.
The fact that they are having to battle it out to make the play-offs and qualify automatically for the Heineken Champions Cup is a symptom of an up-and-down season that has been seriously impacted by a lengthy injury list and multiple international call-ups.
A decent start to the season was brought to an abrupt halt after winning just one game in all competitions across November and December, leaving them out of this season’s Heineken Cup and struggling to keep pace in the Pro14.
With two strong home wins in their last two games their season is slowly getting back on track, but going up against Cardiff Blues, after we beat them comfortably at Parc y Scarlets over the festive period, may invoke bad memories for this season, despite having won at the Arms Park in each of the last two seasons.
Head coach Wayne Pivac is able to welcome back a number of key players this week, with Samson Lee, James Davies and Rhys Patchell all restored to the starting XV having had various involvements in recent weeks due to injury or international call-ups.
Grand Slam heroes Ken Owens, Rob Evans and Gareth Davies all take a seat on the bench, although Jake Ball and Ryan Elias miss out due to injury, while Blade Thomson is still ruled out with concussion.
Scarlets: Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny McNicholl, Kieron Fonotia (c), Paul Asquith, Ioan Nicholas, Rhys Patchell, Kieran Hardy; Wyn Jones, Marc Jones, Samson Lee, Lewis Rawlins, Steve Cummins, Josh Macleod, James Davies, Uzair Cassiem
Replacements: Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Werner Kruger, Josh Helps, Will Boyde, Gareth Davies, Dan Jones, Steff Evans
For Cardiff Blues, who are currently on a run of four wins in five games with the loss producing two bonus points, there are plenty of changes from the team that beat Southern Kings at the Arms Park three weeks ago.
A brand new front row sees Rhys Gill, Kris Dacey and Dmitri Arhip pack down, while Josh Turnbull returns from injury to pack down alongside Rory Thornton at lock. Josh Navidi returns from Grand Slam winning exploits to start at blindside, joining the incumbent Nick Williams and Olly Robinson in the back row.
At half-back there is a start for Tomos Williams alongside Jarrod Evans while Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo reprise their partnership in the centre, and Gareth Anscombe returns from kicking Wales to victory over Ireland to start at full-back. Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill complete the starting XV on the wings.
The bench sees Dillon Lewis and Seb Davies returns from the Wales squad, where they are joined by Rhys Carre who is set to get his first taste of Welsh derby rugby as a replacement.
Cardiff Blues: Gareth Anscombe, Owen Lane, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Aled Summerhill, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Rhys Gill, Kris Dacey (c), Dmitri Arhip, Josh Turnbull, Rory Thornton, Josh Navidi, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams
Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Rhys Carre, Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Lloyd Williams, Harri Millard, Matthew Morgan
It’s set to be about as competitive as regional rugby derbies get on Friday night, with not only bragging rights to play for, but a chance for both sides to get into the driving seat for play-off places in their respective conferences.
On what is set to be a dry night in the capital, in front of a close to capacity Arms Park, hopefully a fast and exciting game keeps supporters engaged beyond just the one game after the Grand Slam win.
For Cardiff Blues there will be the fresh memory of how our defensive organisation and intensity dominated the Scarlets back in December, and how since then our attacking form has improved to score at least three tries in five of the last six games.
If we can hit the ground running, something we haven’t always done this season, we can be out of sight before the West Wales visitors bring their big names off the bench. Four games are left to define the season. Come on Cardiff!
Cardiff Blues form: WWLWW
Scarlets form: LLLWW
Cardiff Blues top try scorers: Rey Lee-Lo, Owen Lane (8)
Scarlets top try scorer: Steff Evans (6)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Gareth Anscombe (140)
Scarlets top points scorer: Dan Jones (56)
John Lacey (IRE) – The Irishman’s last visit to the Arms Park before retiring from refereeing. Was in charge of our loss to Glasgow in the Pro14 back in November. Six yellow cards and two red cards in eleven games this season.