The unlikely rivalry

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A few seasons ago I recall a comical piece of Guinness Pro14 advertising when attempting to big up a weekend of action early in the campaign.

Games between Cardiff Blues and Ospreys, Ulster and Connacht, and Munster and Leinster were rightly attributed the strapline ‘more than a rivalry’, but lumped in amongst them was the mouth-watering derby clash that is Edinburgh v Benetton.

For a long time the league has been trying to talk up the inter-country rivalry aspect of the competition, especially with the South African sides now on board, in a bid to drum up significant interest outside of the Welsh regional, Irish inter-provincial and Scottish 1872 Cup games.

And while the example of Edinburgh v Benetton isn’t one that is likely to haul viewers away from basically any other sporting event in the known world, we are slowly seeing some ties that have a bit of bite to them.

Games between Munster and Glasgow have had a bit of edge to them in recent years, while the regular meetings between Leinster and Scarlets in the latter stages of the Pro14 over the last three years have been great encounters.

Perhaps the oddest of the developing rivalries is one we will see this weekend though, as Cardiff Blues and Connacht meet once again in a crunch game as both teams battle it out for a place in the play-offs and qualification to the Heineken Champions Cup once again.

It is not a rivalry that is particularly derby-like; there are no bragging rights at stake as such, there is little back-and-forth between supporters on social media, and actually the atmosphere in the grounds at games is largely friendly. Galway is rated by Cardiff Blues supporters as one of the best away trips, while Connacht always bring a solid contingent over for a weekend in the Welsh capital.

However, on the field games between the two sides have become key affairs in recent years with both teams often battling it out at a similar level, stoked by the fact that we have spent the first three seasons of the new Pro14 format in the same Conference.

nick williams connacht

I personally trace the battle back to the 2014/15 season, as Connacht began to properly shake off the tag of being ‘the Irish development province’ and Cardiff Blues settle into being a mid-table side after the success up to 2011.

The games that season were incredibly tight affairs, with a late Rhys Patchell penalty and then Dan Fish charging down a Jack Carty drop goal ensuring a 24-24 draw at the Sportsground, before an 87th minute Joaquin Tuculet try and Rhys Patchell conversion clinched a dramatic 18-17 win at the Arms Park.

Results were equally tight over the next few seasons as both sides won their home games in 15/16, an aggregate score 51-52 going in favour of Connacht, before the Irish side got the better of Cardiff Blues in both games during 16/17 by margins of 11 and 6 points.

Cardiff Blues managed to do a double of our own in 17/18, the first season of the Conferences, with margins of two and six points, before last season saw home wins in both games, but with losing bonus points being secured on both occasions.

It was the game in Galway last year that was particularly contentious, as the Irish TMO ruled out a clearly good Jason Harries try for being in touch, preventing John Mulvihill’s side from pushing for a play-off spot.

With similar playing budgets, similar styles of play and similarly weather-impacted grounds, Cardiff Blues and Connacht games are some of the most tightly contested in the league, and this weekend will be no different.

Just a point separates the sides in fourth and fifth in Conference B, and with the wind and rain forecast to be hitting Galway hard, action at the Sportsground will be predictably tense.

There is a lot on the line though as both sides aim to have a good international period and put themselves in the driving seat for a spot in the play-offs. Here’s hoping the next chapter in the Cardiff Blues v Connacht book is a blue one!

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