Cardiff head into the second round of Heineken Champions Cup pool games with another tough task in hand as the trip is made down the M4 to the Twickenham Stoop for a meeting with reigning Gallagher Premiership champions Harlequins.
The Blue and Blacks went toe-to-toe with the European and Top14 champions Toulouse at the Arms Park last week, leading during the first half despite missing 42 players through quarantine, injury or suspension. Six Academy debuts, five players stepping up from semi-professional or University set-ups and the crucial one man coming out of retirement!
Despite the majority of the quarantined players now returning to their homes they won’t be pushed back into action this weekend, and Gruff Rees will continue to head up the coaching team as we face a Harlequins side that battled to an 18-20 win away at Castres last weekend.
That was a return to winning ways for Tabai Matson’s side who had lost back-to-back Premiership games in the two weeks prior at the hands of London Irish and Leicester Tigers, having won five of their opening seven games before that.
They now have to overcome a tough head-to-head record against Cardiff to maintain that return to being victorious as, leaving aside the pre-season friendly between the two sides back in September, the Blue and Blacks have won five of the nine meetings between the sides in European competition.
Fortunately Quins can fall back on the fact they won both games the last time we met, in the 2015/16 Challenge Cup, and also with the strength of the 23 they can select as Matson shows no mercy to the heavily impacted squad of the Blue and Blacks.
There are eight internationals in the starting XV, including captain Stephan Lewies who has played for the Springboks, talisman Alex Dombrandt at number eight and star man Marcus Smith who of course made his debut for England and then went on to join the British and Irish Lions tour last summer. There is also impact from the bench as try scoring hero from the Premiership Final Louis Lynagh prepares to take advantage of tired legs.
Harlequins: Tyrone Green, Joe Marchant, Huw Jones, Andre Esterhuizen, Cadan Murley, Marcus Smith, Danny Care; Santiago Garcia Gotta, Jack Walker, Simon Kerrod, Hugh Tizard, Stephan Lewies (c), Tom Lawday, Jack Kenningham, Alex Dombrandt
Replacements: Jack Musk, Will Hobson, Mak Wilson, Matt Symons, Viliami Taulani, Lewis Gjaltema, Luke Northmore, Louis Lynagh
Gruff Rees has made four changes to his Cardiff starting XV that took the field against Toulouse last week with the big news being that Rey Lee-Lo is back in the centre after being declared free to play following his suspension that followed being sent off against Dragons in October.
He joins Willis Halaholo in midfield as Josh Adams reverts to the wing and Dan Fish moves to fly-half where Jason Tovey misses out due to a head knock. Meanwhile there is a straight swap at full-back where Cameron Winnett makes his debut after Jacob Beetham’s red card late in the game against the French side.
Up front Evan Yardley will start at hooker after Iestyn Harris suffered a shoulder injury while Sam Moore gets the nod at number eight due to Olly Robinson isolating, with James Botham moving around to the openside. Rags hooker Alun Rees steps up on to the bench alongside Academy prop Nathan Evans and back rower Alex Mann.
Cardiff: Cameron Winnett, Theo Cabango, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Josh Adams, Dan Fish, Tomos Williams; Rowan Jenkins, Evan Yardley, Will Davies-King, Alun Lawrence, Seb Davies, Ellis Jenkins (c), James Botham, Sam Moore
Replacements: Alun Rees, Nathan Evans, Geraint James, Rhys Anstey, Alex Mann, Ethan Lloyd, Ioan Evans, Ryan Wilkins
If it was thought that last week was a tough test for Cardiff then this one, away at Harlequins without the support of a sell-out home crowd against one of the best teams in Europe and having to recover from last Saturday’s exploits, is on another level up again.
However, there is a ray of hope for the Blue and Blacks being competitive as Quins aim to play a similar brand of rugby to that we saw from Rees’ team last week, meaning there won’t be as much of an arm wrestle in defence as we saw against Toulouse, allowing us to focus on our high tempo game with the additional quality of Rey Lee-Lo in midfield.
If we can execute in attack early in the game then we stand a chance of at least pushing for four tries, but it will still be an incredibly tough task later in the match when Harlequins empty their bench. Still, a 100% effort and enjoying the experience is all we ask, come on Cardiff!