Pre-seasons in a World Cup year are always strange beasts. They drag on for ages, then get completely over-shadowed by international action before the new season suddenly creeps up on you out of nowhere.
This one has been no different, as in early August the new Guinness Pro14 campaign seemed a long way off, then Warren Gatland’s men got stuck into pre-World Cup warm-ups and before we know it Cardiff Blues are just two weeks away from heading to Southern Kings for the opening game of the season.
Despite the domestic game festering under the radar with all focus on Japan though, the pre-season friendly against Bedford Blues on Saturday is an important one for John Mulvihill’s men in terms of achieving the aim which was evaded us for the last few years; making the play-offs.
Getting off to a good start this season will be key as we look to take advantage of other teams being without their international stars, while we have been hit relatively lightly with only six players heading to Japan, and Jarrod Evans and Owen Lane returning to our squad.
Of course the result won’t actually be important but a dominant performance against what, with the greatest of respect to Bedford, is a weaker team on paper should lead to comfortable Cardiff Blues victory, with two areas of the game being interesting.
In particular the attacking game will be closely watched, as the first team play for the first time since Richie Rees took over as the specialist coach from Jason Strange. Last season the criticism was during phase play and failing to create line breaks from midfield when we were so successful from first phase strike plays.
Starting at a high level defensively will be important, but with the task being to maintain consistency in that area over the first few weeks rather than having to dramatically fix any aspects during the off-season, the other key aspect to watch will be partnerships, in particular between experienced non-Welsh qualified players and emerging Academy graduates.
This Saturday’s encounter at Goldington Road will be the only chance for Dmitri Arhip, Nick Williams and Willis Halaholo to get game time ahead of that trip to South Africa due to Celtic Cup regulations, and as a result they will need to get around an hour to prove their fitness and strike up on-field relationships with those around them.
For Arhip it will be about building on what the front row started last season, with hopefully one of the hookers behind Kris Dacey in the pecking order putting their hand up as a clear second choice, but for Williams the back row has changed quite a bit over the last nine months.
Will Boyde has been signed and will likely be starting against Kings with Ellis Jenkins injured and Josh Navidi away with Wales, while the likes of Shane Lewis-Hughes and James Botham are still taking their first steps in senior professional rugby.
Similarly for Halaholo he will need to ensure his own form and consistency are up to scratch with Rey Lee-Lo away on Samoa duty, and build on partnerships formed with Harri Millard, Garyn Smith and possibly Ben Thomas, as well as Jason Tovey at fly-half.
Fitness and match sharpness will be the main takeaway, in what is a different pre-season in terms of amount of friendlies and quality of opposition, but to have the confidence of knowing the team is functioning well as well at the right fitness levels will be key to hit the ground running in South Africa.
There are still a few seats left on the Cardiff Blues Supporters Club bus to Bedford on Saturday leaving at 10am from the Arms Park. Book your place by clicking here.