The 2020/21 Guinness Pro14 season gets underway this weekend with Cardiff Blues’ trip to Zebre on Friday evening at 6pm acting as the curtain raiser for the new campaign.
1,000 supporters will be allowed in to the Stadio Lanfranchi di Parma this weekend, but what will they see from the Welsh capital side? The last three years have seen us make poor starts to the season, and John Mulvihill’s men cannot afford for that to happen again this time round.
Across the fifteen games that have made up the first five matches of the last three seasons, Cardiff Blues’ record is four wins and eleven losses. During Mulvihill’s two seasons we have won just once in the opening three games, that coming away at the Southern Kings last year.
On both occasions that has put us on the back foot before the campaign has even properly got going, and we’ve never recovered from either slow start. During 2018/19 we were always playing catch up and by the turn of the calendar year we would have needed an incredible run to make the play-offs, meanwhile during 2019/20 hopes of post-season rugby were close to over even by the start of December.
Looking at each of the last three season there has been a feeling of under-preparedness when looking at the Cardiff Blues squad, stemming from a lack of pre-season friendlies. Generally teams are playing three pre-season games these days in order to get players properly ready alongside giving the wider squad game time.
We have only played two pre-season games though, and last season they were against a fairly poor Bedford Blues outfit and a hijacked Celtic Cup fixture against Dragons A. With the greatest of respect, we weren’t ready to compete in the Pro14 and it showed as we struggled past the Kings before losing four games in a row.
Then there has also been elements of change. Of course the summer of 2018 was an upheaval as Mulvihill came on as the head of a new coaching staff, as well as 13 playing squad changes, then the summer of 2019 saw Mulvihill put his stamp on the squad with 16 playing squad changes as well as a coaching switch.
On to this season though and things appear to be changing. Cardiff Blues played the two final games of the Guinness Pro14 season last month and have then had four weeks intense training leading into the first game of the campaign this Friday. Some teams have played European knockouts and behind closed doors friendlies, but Zebre have not been one of them.
This means we go into the game with the some match minutes as the opposition, and if reports of the training sessions are correct it seems the players have been getting properly stuck in, with a number of injuries coming from it but hopefully those that are fit are ready and raring to go.
If we can get a win against Zebre we go into the home game against Connacht the following week at Rodney Parade with a great chance to open the season with two wins for the first time since 2016. Internationals will be available for selection for both games, so we can go as full strength as possible and really set the tone.
From there we go into two tough international window games away at Munster and home to Ulster. Two wins against Zebre and Connacht take the pressure off the next two weeks, rather than having to play catch up against sides that are strong even without their Irish stars thanks to the quality depth in their squads.
They also stave off comments about John Mulvihill’s leadership which grow every time Cardiff Blues suffer a defeat, as we prepare to start the final season of the Australian’s contract at the Arms Park. He needs a good start in order to continue to build on what he has done over the last two years.
The hope does of course kill you, but there’s definitely a positive feeling that we can come out strong in 2020/21.