The season is now firmly sitting in it’s business end and the big games keep rolling on up, with Cardiff Blues travelling to Munster on Friday night for an all-Conference A clash in the Guinness Pro14.
John Mulvihill’s men are still fighting for the all-important third spot that would see us qualify for the play-offs, as well as gain entry into next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Direct rivals Connacht will be favourites in their game away at Zebre, although it’s not a given by any means, while one of the chasing pack will draw a step closer as Ospreys and Connacht prepare to play in Bloemfontein.
Therefore Cardiff Blues will need to take something from Irish Independent Park, Munster’s second ground in Cork, a stadium that we have visited eight times since 2003, winning four and losing four to date.
We also have the advantage of having won both previous games played against the Irish side, each coming at the Arms Park, the most recent of those being the 37-13 hammering back in September thanks to an inspired Willis Halaholo performance.
However, Munster are in excellent form having lost just one of their last seven games, and are yet to lose at home in any competition this season, impressive considering strong English sides Gloucester and Exeter were in their Heineken Cup pool.
They come into the game on the back of a hard fought 13-17 away at Edinburgh in the European quarter-finals last weekend, setting up a semi-final away against Saracens at the home of Wasps in two weeks, with head coach Johann van Graan making six changes to his team that won at Murrayfield.
Kevin O’Byrne starts at hooker, while Billy Holland slots in at lock, and Arno Botha and Chris Cloete join captain Peter O’Mahony to make up the back row. Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander find themselves among the replacements.
In the backs there is a change at fly-half, with Joey Carbery rested and Tyler Bleyendaal named in his place, while Mike Haley will start at full-back. Sam Arnold is named on the bench after recovering from injury.
Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Tyler Bleyendaal, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Kevin O’Byrne, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (c), Chris Cloete, Arno Botha
Replacements: Niall Scannell, Jeremy Loughman, Stephen Archer, Tadhg Beirne, CJ Stander, Alby Mathewson, JJ Hanrahan, Sammy Arnold
There are fewer changes in the Cardiff Blues team after John Mulvihill’s men enjoyed a week off last week, but there are still three injury enforced alterations to make to the side that travels to Cork.
Josh Navidi is of course ruled out for the season after undergoing elbow surgery following the dislocation suffered against Scarlets, with Shane Lewis-Hughes stepping up to take his place at blindside flanker.
Dmitri Arhip and Nick Williams are both ruled out with minor injuries, perhaps in the knowledge of how big next week’s game against Connacht is, with Dillon Lewis and Seb Davies coming into the team, and Josh Turnbull dropping back to start at number eight.
The backline stays the same, while on the bench there are spaces for Brad Thyer, Keiron Assiratti, George Earle, Jim Botham and Garyn Smith, with Mulvihill largely putting his faith in youth to see the game home.
There are milestones set to be reached as Kris Dacey is on course for 150 appearances, while Aled Summerhill will appear for the 50th time.
Cardiff Blues: Gareth Anscombe; Owen Lane, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Aled Summerhill; Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey (c), Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Rory Thornton, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Olly Robinson, Josh Turnbull
Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Brad Thyer, Keiron Assiratti, George Earle, James Botham, Lloyd Williams, Garyn Smith, Matthew Morgan
It’s going to be a battle in Cork, with Munster still in the fight for top spot in the Conference and having the backing of the home crowd, but Cardiff Blues can be confident after just one loss in the last six games.
Up front will be key, with John Mulvihill losing the physicality and leadership of Nick Williams against a team that pride themselves on their pack’s competitiveness and strength of their set piece.
As a result Cardiff Blues may look to play a more expansive game which raises the question of whether two losing bonus points would be a good result to come back home with.
Taking momentum and ensuring that next week’s game against Connacht still results in the winner being in third place will be a good result, but first and foremost the win has to be the aim and there’s no doubt the team will be going for it.
The big games keep coming and the easiest way to ensure Heineken Champions Cup qualification is to keep winning them. Easier said than done of course. Come on Cardiff!
Munster form: WWLWW
Cardiff Blues form: WLWWW
Munster top try scorer: Joey Carbery (5)
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Owen Lane (10)
Munster top points scorer: Joey Carbery (106)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Gareth Anscombe (156)
Marius Mitrea (ITA) – Hasn’t refereed a Cardiff Blues game since the away win over Connacht in September 2017. Has been in charge of 14 games this season, showing 10 yellow cards. Just three away wins.