The regular Guinness Pro14 season comes to an end on Saturday as Cardiff Blues face Ospreys at Judgement Day in a one-off shootout for fourth spot in Conference B.
On it’s own that doesn’t sound like much, solidly mid-table in the Conference and outside of the play-off places that matter, but fourth place is key as it provides an opportunity to qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup.
Each team in fourth place will compete in a one-off game, the winner of which will play in next season’s top tier of European rugby, and with the tables as they are, whoever wins at the Principality Stadium will host that fixture.
Opponents will be one of Benetton, Scarlets or Edinburgh, and while there is a possibility that the play-off won’t be required if Leinster win the Heineken Cup and all of the Challenge Cup semi-finalists qualify for the main competition through their respective leagues, it’s all about winning on Saturday for the Cardiff Blues.
There’s some bouncing back to do for John Mulvihill’s men after a tough two-game spell in Ireland where defeats to Munster and Connacht ended hopes of a play-off spot and automatic Heineken Cup qualification, but it’ll need to be done against an Ospreys side in decent form.
Three straight bonus point wins have seen them go from sixth to fourth in a month in the Conference A table, and while Dragons, Cheetahs and Kings aren’t exactly sides famed for their defensive strengths, the confidence and momentum will be huge for the visitors.
They will of course also be aware of the winning record they have over the Cardiff Blues, having won 12 out of the last 13 league encounters between the two teams, the most recent coming back in January as the were 20-11 victors in a poor game at the Liberty Stadium.
On top of that, head coach Allen Clarke has been able to boost his ranks this week, welcoming back Grand Slam winners and Lions test pair Alun Wyn Jones and George North to his starting XV.
North comes in on the right wing for Keelan Giles, while Alun Wyn Jones replaces Bradley Davies as both of those players drop to the bench, and there are just two other changes to the side that beat Kings with Tom Botha and Ma’afu Fia, and Sam Davies and Luke Price, swapping places on the tighthead and at fly-half, respectively.
Rhodri Jones covers loosehead instead of Gareth Thomas as a change on the bench.
Ospreys: Dan Evans, George North, Cory Allen, Owen Watkin, Hanno Dirksen, Sam Davies, Aled Davies; Nicky Smith, Scott Baldwin, Tom Botha, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones, Olly Cracknell, Justin Tipuric (c), James King
Replacements: Sam Parry, Gareth Thomas, Ma’afu Fia, Bradley Davies, Dan Lydiate, Matthew Aubrey, Luke Price, Keelan Giles
Of course Cardiff Blues will point to the fact that last season’s Judgement Day was very much a distraction for us ahead of the European Challenge Cup Final two weeks later, and with Heineken Champions Cup qualification sewn up, we put out a very much second string team.
This season John Mulvihill has chosen what he believes to be the best XV available to him, but his selection is not without a touch of controversy.
Gareth Anscombe has been selected at full-back and will play, and possibly deny a place at the top table of European rugby, against his employers from next season, while Lloyd Williams has been preferred at scrum-half to the in-form Tomos Williams who drops to the bench.
The only other change to the back division sees the fit again Aled Summerhill reclaim his wing spot from Jason Harries, who also takes a seat on the bench rather than Matthew Morgan.
Up front Kris Dacey is still out injured, but Nick Williams returns to captain the side from number eight after not playing in either game out in Ireland, with Seb Davies shifting back to lock and George Earle dropping to the bench.
Kirby Myhill is preferred to Liam Belcher as hooker cover, while Garyn Smith gets the nod over fellow new contract signee Harri Millard as the midfield cover.
Cardiff Blues: Gareth Anscombe, Owen Lane, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Aled Summerhill, Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams; Rhys Gill, Ethan Lewis, Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Rory Thornton, Josh Turnbull, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams (c)
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Rhys Carre, Dmitri Arhip, George Earle, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Tomos Williams, Garyn Smith, Jason Harries
While Cardiff Blues arguably have the better backs division, there is a noticeable difference in the size and quality between the two packs, with Ospreys having a comfortably better and stronger tight five than us.
It is going to take some performance from us to match up in this department, and even that might not be enough against what could well be three of the starting Wales tight five at the World Cup.
Avoiding getting dragged into a tight carrying and set piece-laden game is going to be key, as Cardiff Blues will need to come out moving the ball quickly and accurately in the early stages.
Perhaps the only positive thought in this respect is that is exactly what we did at Judgement Day two years ago when the Ospreys were blown away by our first half performance.
It’s going to take something of that level to get close to a win here, but we as supporters are nothing if not blindly loyal and hopeful. Come on Cardiff!
Cardiff Blues form: WWWLL
Ospreys form: LLWWW
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Owen Lane (11)
Ospreys top try scorers: Justin Tipuric, Luke Morgan (4)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Gareth Anscombe (169)
Ospreys top points scorer: Sam Davies (85)
Nigel Owens (WAL) – Showtime’s second Cardiff Blues game of the season after the opening day defeat to Leinster and the festive win away at Scarlets. Seven yellow cards in 17 games this season.