Cardiff Blues return to European Challenge Cup action in Sunday with a crucial pool five fixture against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road, 3.15pm kick-off.
After a positive festive period that saw us beat Ospreys and Dragons before narrowly losing to Scarlets last week, John Mulvihill’s men now require another strong result against their English opposition this weekend in order to keep hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals alive.
The simple equation for Cardiff Blues is that a win on Sunday will almost certainly guarantee qualification to the knockout stages. With all due to respect to Calvisano, an expected home win over the Italian side would see us finish as pool winners or a best runner-up, depending on what happens between Leicester and Pau.
Without a win, we would need to match the competition points total of Pau going into the final weekend, either by securing one or two losing bonus points, as we would finish above them in the event of a tie due to taking seven points from our head-to-head games, more than their five.
If we finish this weekend third in the pool then we would be relying on Leicester going to France and getting a win in the final round of games, taking our fate out of our hands.
Winning will be a tough ask though with Leicester having never lost at home to Welsh opposition in a European competition, and Cardiff Blues having never beaten the Tigers in European competition in four attempts.
Of course the last game between the sides was back in November when a late Tom Hardwick penalty snatched an 11-14 win for the English side, while the last visit to Welford Road for the Welsh capital side came in January 2007 when Leicester put six tries past us in a 34-0 defeat.
Since that game earlier in the season, the Tigers have slowly started to turn their Gallagher Premiership campaign around, with a narrow home defeat against Exeter being followed up by a draw against Harlequins in the ‘Big Game’ at Twickenham and a victory over Bristol Bears at home last week.
With Saracens still bottom courtesy of their points deduction, Leicester are putting pressure on London Irish and Wasps above them.
There are nine changes to the Leicester Tigers side that beat Bristol last week, with the majority coming up front where only captain Tom Youngs and Harry Wells remain. In come the Welsh-qualified Greg Bateman and Joe Heyes at prop, while former Wales U20 captain Tommy Reffell starts at openside flanker.
In the backs the experience of George Ford, Kyle Eastmond and Telusa Veainu remain, and they are joined by new signing Rory Hughes and George Worth, a full-back playing out of position at outside centre.
Leicester Tigers: Telusa Veainu, Jordan Olowofela, George Worth, Kyle Eastmond, Rory Hughes, George Ford, Ben White; Greg Bateman, Tom Youngs (c), Joe Heyes, Joe Batley, Harry Wells, Sam Lewis, Tommy Reffell, Jordan Coghlan
Replacements: Tatafu Polota-Nau, Ellis Genge, Nephi Leatigaga, Will Spencer, Ifereimi Boladau, Harry Simmons, Noel Reid, Adam Thompstone
John Mulvihill has sprung a few surprises in his team selection as he makes eight changes to the starting XV, with the good news being that Corey Domachowski and Dillon Lewis are fit to start together for the first time this season, while Dmitri Arhip returns to action from the bench and Shane Lewis-Hughes is back at blindside.
Elsewhere though Seb Davies wears the number eight jersey once again, while Lloyd Williams and Jason Tovey form a new half-back pairing. Rey Lee-Lo is moved to 12 as Josh Adams wears the 13 jersey for the first time ever, and Jason Harries and Matthew Morgan join the back three with no sign of Nick Williams, Jarrod Evans or Owen Lane.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Jason Harries, Josh Adams, Rey Lee-Lo, Hallam Amos, Jason Tovey, Lloyd Williams; Corey Domachowski, Liam Belcher, Dillon Lewis, Filo Paulo, Josh Turnbull, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Josh Navidi (c), Seb Davies
Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Brad Thyer, Dmitri Arhip, James Ratti, Will Boyde, Olly Robinson, Tomos Williams, Ben Thomas
With a makeshift team, particularly the backline, it will not be an easy task for Cardiff Blues to get the win we need to ensure our qualification fate remains in our own hands, with a huge effort required over the first hour to at least stay in the game.
If we do still stand a chance of getting a result with 20 to go then the quality we have on the bench can give us a timely injection, but it will be a challenge to hit the ground running with so many new combinations and players playing out of position.
Still though, the spirit of Benetton can be invoked and with a good travelling contingent travelling to Welford Road the boys will be cheered on strongly as they look to bag the win. Come on Cardiff!