Cardiff Blues return to Guinness Pro14 action on Saturday night with a trip to Galway to face Connacht in a crucial Conference B clash, 7.35pm kick-off.
Dai Young’s men only have four fixtures left in the 2020/21 season, and after the back-to-back wins over Scarlets last month the possibility of qualifying for next year’s Heineken Champions Cup is well and truly on, with our destiny in our hands.
That starts with a visit to the Sportsground on Saturday, with the Irish side currently sitting second in the table six points ahead of Cardiff with a game in hand mainly thanks to a surprise win over Leinster over the festive period, the champions’ first Pro14 loss in 27 games.
They also beat the Dragons last time out but Connacht are actually on a losing streak in Galway stretching back five games to early December as Racing, Munster, Ulster and Ospreys have all taken wins away from the west coast of Ireland.
Andy Friend’s side do have a two-game winning run over Cardiff Blues at the Sportsground though, as we fell 29-22 after some dodgy refereeing from the TMO in 2018/19, and then an embarrassing 29-0 loss in 2019/20 just before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
We bounced back with a strong 29-7 win at Rodney Parade in round two of this season, but winning in Galway has been made tougher this week by Dave Heffernan, Ultan Dillane and Bundee Aki all being released to Connacht from the Irish Six Nations squad.
The other changes in Friend’s matchday 23 see Jordan Duggan start at loosehead prop, Jarrad Butler and Eoghan Masterson come into the back row and Alex Wootton start on the wing. Shane Delahunt, Denis Buckley, Abraham Papali’i and Tiernan O’Halloran all drop on to the bench.
Connacht: John Porch, Alex Wootton, Tom Daly, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade; Jordan Duggan, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury, Ultan Dillane, Eoghan Masterson, Jarrad Butler (c), Paul Boyle
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Denis Buckley, Jack Aungier, Oisin Dowling, Abraham Papali’i, Kieran Marmion, Sean O’Brien, Tiernan O’Halloran
Dai Young has made nine changes to the side that beat Scarlets last time out, although has been forced into two changes from the matchday 23 originally announced as Mason Grady and Ben Thomas were forced to stay in Cardiff after inconclusive coronavirus tests.
As a result it is Harri Millard who starts alongside Rey Lee-Lo in the centre, with Dan Fish and Max Llewellyn covering 10-15 on the bench. Other backs changes see Lloyd Williams, released from the Wales squad, and Jason Tovey form the half-back partnership, while Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill are the wing pairing.
In the forwards Rhys Carre is also released from the Wales squad and joins Dmitri Arhip as the prop duo, Rory Thornton joins Seb Davies in the second row and there are welcome returns for Shane Lewis-Hughes and Ellis Jenkins in the back row, with the latter making his first Pro14 appearance since October 2018.
On the bench there are nods for Kirby Myhill, Keiron Assiratti, Ben Murphy, Gwilym Bradley and Jamie Hill as Young opts for a youthful feel to the replacements.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Owen Lane, Mason Grady, Rey Lee-Lo, Aled Summerhill, Jason Tovey, Lloyd Williams; Rhys Carre, Liam Belcher, Dmitri Arhip, Seb Davies, Rory Thornton, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Turnbull (c)
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Corey Domachowski, Keiron Assiratti, Ben Murphy, Gwilym Bradley, Jamie Hill, Ben Thomas, Harri Millard
On what is set to be a gale force windy night in Galway the game management and set piece will be vital. The boots of Lloyd Williams, Jason Tovey and Matthew Morgan have to win the kicking battle, and then the set piece must provide a platform for the elusive runners Lee-Lo, Millard, Lane and Summerhill.
Defensively there should be few problems, especially with Lewis-Hughes, Jenkins and Turnbull in the back row, but if we can’t get close in the battle for territory and possession then we won’t be able to compete for 80 minutes at the Sportsground.
Dai Young has spoken about there being ‘no excuses’ in the week, and the 23 put out by Cardiff Blues is more than competitive against this Connacht side. It’s time to shake off the shackles of the last few years and show what this squad is capable of week-in, week-out. Come on Cardiff!