Cardiff Blues make a competitive return to the Arms Park for the first time in just over a year on Friday night when Munster arrive for an 8pm kick-off.
It was a year ago on Tuesday that we lost took to the field at our historic ground for a Guinness Pro14 fixture when we beat Benetton 34-24 on a Sunday afternoon during the Six Nations, and little did we know back then that a year on we, as supporters, would still not have returned to watch our team play.
At that point in the 2019/20 season we were in a similar position to where we currently are, knowing that we essentially have to win all our remaining games to secure a top three finish, which Cardiff now must do after last week’s defeat to Connacht.
A defeat at the hands of Munster this week would effectively leave Dai Young’s men relying on results elsewhere to ensure a top three finish in Conference B and definite qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup, as well as on the back foot to even finish fourth.
It won’t be an easy task as the Irish side have won every game against Conference opposition so far this season, and only lost to Ulster and Leinster in any competition during the campaign, most recently overcoming Edinburgh at Murrayfield last weekend.
That run includes a victory over Cardiff Blues, with Munster winning 38-27 at Thomond Park back in October, while they were also victorious in their last visit to the Arms Park thanks to a 23-33 scoreline back in November 2019.
Head coach Johann van Graan has made six changes to his starting XV that beat Edinburgh last time out with Craig Casey, Chris Farrell and Andrew Conway all returning to the Irish Six Nations squad. As a result Nick McCarthy starts at scrum-half, Rory Scannell is in at outside centre and Calvin Nash gets the nod on the wing.
The other changes come up front where Kevin O’Byrne, Fineen Wycherley and Jack O’ Sullivan stepping off the bench to play at hooker, lock and number eight respectively, with Niall Scannell, Billy Holland and Gavin Coombes named among the replacements.
There is also a spot on the bench for fly-half Joey Carbery who is involved in a Munster matchday 23 for the first time since January last year.
Munster: Mike Haley, Calvin Nash, Rory Scannell, Damian de Allende, Shane Daly, JJ Hanrahan, Nick McCarthy; James Cronin, Kevin O’Byrne, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Jack O’Donoghue (c), Chris Cloete, Jack O’Sullivan
Replacements: Niall Scannell, Liam O’Connor, Roman Salanoa, Billy Holland, Gavin Coombes, Paddy Patterson, Joey Carbery, Darren Sweetnam
In the Cardiff Blues starting XV there are five changes to the side that took the field away at Connacht last week, with two coming up front as Rhys Carre is recalled by Wales and Liam Belcher dropped to the bench as Corey Domachowski and Kirby Myhill start alongside Dmitri Arhip.
The other changes are in the backs where Jamie Hill and Ben Thomas form a young and exciting half-back partnership, with Lloyd Williams also back with Wales and Jason Tovey picking up a head knock, while Mason Grady finally starts at outside centre after his inconclusive coronavirus test last week.
On the bench there is a potential debut for Theo Bevacqua, a recall for James Ratti and a return to fitness for Olly Robinson. Josh Turnbull captains the side and makes his 150th Cardiff Blues appearance.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Owen Lane, Mason Grady, Rey Lee-Lo, Aled Summerhill, Ben Thomas, Jamie Hill; Corey Domachowski, Kirby Myhill, Dmitri Arhip, Seb Davies, Rory Thornton, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Turnbull (c)
Replacements: Liam Belcher, Theo Bevacqua, Keiron Assiratti, James Ratti, Olly Robinson, Lewis Jones, Dan Fish, Max Llewellyn
On what is set to be a dry and fine night back on the artificial surface at the Arms Park we could be in for superb clash between two sides with differing strengths but still keen to attack whenever possible.
We saw in their performance last week that Munster destroyed Edinburgh up front; in open play, at the scrum and with the driving maul. They are a physical force with incredibly direct backs and speed to burn in the wide channels.
However, Cardiff Blues tried to move the ball well against Connacht and if the number of handling errors can be cut then there’s an opportunity for the home side to put the opposition under pressure and keep the scoreboard ticking over. Come on Cardiff!