Rugby returns to the Arms Park on Saturday as Cardiff Blues A begin their 2019 Celtic Cup campaign at home to reigning champions Leinster A.
It is the second edition of the competition which sees the four Welsh and four Irish teams of the Guinness Pro14 pit their ‘A’ teams against each other with the idea being to bridge the gap between domestic level rugby and the senior professional level.
In the case of Cardiff Blues last season, the likes of Liam Belcher, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Harri Millard and Aled Summerhill all got game time in the Celtic Cup before going to feature heavily for the first team during the rest of the year.
Led by now backs and attack coach Richie Rees, the 2018 team finished just a point behind Scarlets A in the Welsh conference, before the West Walians went on to lose to this Saturday’s opponents in the inaugural Final.
This weekend’s Leinster team will be markedly different to that which featured last year though, with the World Cup causing problems for a lot of teams.
Many first team players are away with the Irish squad as they play England this weekend, while the remaining squad members and much of the senior academy have traveled to Canada for a game against their national team.
The side named by Academy Manager Noel McNamara is noticeably on the young side, with many only getting their first taste of senior action in a pre-season friendly against English Championship team Coventry last week.
There is a heavy influence from last season’s Ireland U19 team, with captain Charlie Ryan having led the Ireland U20 side to U20 Six Nations success.
Scrum-half Cormac Foley is thought of particularly highly, as is namesake number eight Ronan, who is one of the only survivors from this fixture last season.
Elsewhere the team is sprinkled with talent from local Universities, Schools and All Ireland League clubs, as McNamara gives young talent an opportunity to impress.
Leinster A: Jack Kelly, Niall Comerford, Gavin Mullin, Liam Turner, Rob Russell, Conor Kelly, Cormac Foley; Michael Milne, Dan Sheehan, Jack Aungier, Cian Prendergast, Charlie Ryan (c), Ronan Watters, Mark Hernan, Ronan Foley
Replacements: John McKee, Marcus Hannan, Charlie Ward, David Maher, Sean O’Brien, Jack Connolly, Paddy McKenzie, Adam La Grue
In a similar fashion Cardiff Blues have opted to give others an opportunity, with the core of Indigo Group Premiership players being slightly older than Leinster’s squad, with an average age in the early 20s rather than late teens, but without a huge amount of experience in a professional environment.
Led by Gethin Jenkins and T Rhys Thomas, both Cardiff RFC coaches as well as Cardiff Blues Academy coaches, the Blue and Blacks form the nucleus of the matchday squad, with 14 of the 25 coming from the squad of Steve Law.
They include new signings, two of whom in the form of Tom Habberfield and Sam Beard will co-captain the side, the soon-to-be-departing Joey Tomlinson and some standout performers from last year’s team that finished second in the league and won the WRU National Cup.
There is also representation from Pontypridd, with five players on the books at Sardis Road pulling on the Cardiff Blues jersey, as well as Will Davies-King, Ioan Davies and Jamie Hill from the Cardiff Blues Academy.
Cardiff Blues A: Ioan Davies, Edd Howley, Alex Knott, Sam Beard (cc), Dale Stuckey, Joe Scrivens, Tom Habberfield (cc); Tom Davies, Evan Yardley, Will Davies King, James Ratti, Callum Bradbury, Cai Devine, Zach O’Driscoll, Tim Grey
Replacements: Joey Tomlinson, Huw Owen, Olly Drake, Sean Moore, Alex Everett, Morgan Allen, Jamie Hill, Ben Jones, Barney Nightingale, Dafydd Smith
Information on each member of the squad can be found here, but keep an eye out for Ioan Davies, Edd Howley and Alex Knott in thw backs, as well as Will Davies-King, James Ratti and Zach O’Driscoll up front.
A game that is difficult to predict, but arguably is not entirely about the score, but about the performance and development, as well as players at the semi-professional level taking their chance at the next step.
With that in mind though, working as individuals desperate to impress will only lead to a heavy defeat. Gethin Jenkins and T Rhys Thomas will have implemented some elements of structure within the defence particularly, and playing within that will be key.
From there the chance to impress will present itself, and what is hopefully a decent crowd at the Arms Park will enjoy some good rugby in the bank holiday sunshine. Remember, a 2019/20 Cardiff Blues season ticket permits entry to the game, come on Cardiff!