A competitive balance the key for Cardiff in SA

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Despite the festival of largely defensive, route one and referee-bashing rugby that is the Autumn Nations Series still dragging on, the United Rugby Championship returns this weekend as Cardiff join the other Welsh sides in making the long journey to South Africa.

It was a slightly mixed but overall positive fixture block for the Blue and Blacks across the first seven games of the league campaign, bouncing back from disappointing performances against Glasgow and Lions to string three increasingly good wins together in important Welsh derby games and then against reigning champions Stormers, before just running out of steam against Edinburgh.

The final result is Dai Young’s men sitting sixth in the table, albeit with the three teams below us having either one or two games in hand, but with Cardiff still right in the mix for the top eight and a play-offs spot, as well as first place in the “Welsh Shield” which guarantees qualification for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.

Perhaps the uncomfortable truth is that the Blue and Blacks have already enjoyed what, on paper at least, was our “easiest” fixture block. As easy as games at the professional level can be anyway, with five of the seven games so far taking place at the Arms Park, and three games coming against sides that also missed out on the play-offs last season, plus a weakened Munster team.

Still to come are trips to Leinster and Connacht, welcoming Ulster to the Welsh capital, and a double header against Ospreys who are too often our bogey team in derbies. Before that though comes a double header against Sharks and Bulls, and the tests don’t come much tougher.

As of yet only one European side has travelled to Kings Park, home of the Sharks, and come away with a result, and no side has gone to the Bulls’ home of Loftus Versfeld and come away with a tick in the win column, with the latter particularly showing what they are about by making it all the way to the Final in last season’s first edition of the league as we now know it.

If Cardiff are going to keep that push on for a top eight spot we need to come home in two weeks with at least two points in the back pocket, but there’s no reason to think we can’t face Sharks this weekend and get a really good result.

The Blue and Blacks have played a game against Bristol to stay sharp, allowed some players to rest who featured heavily across the first eight weeks, and haven’t been hit too badly by international call-ups with the likes of Rhys Carre, Seb Davies, Lopeti Timani, James Botham, Thomas Young, James Ratti, Lloyd Williams, Jarrod Evans and Rey Lee-Lo all set to be available.

Sharks themselves have had an up-and-down season so far both results-wise, winning three and losing two, but also scheduling wise, with their game against Ulster postponed leaving them with just one game in the last six weeks. They also supply a large number of Springboks with Thomas du Toit, Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi, Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Jaden Hendrikse, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi still with the national team.

If we play with the commitment shown against Scarlets and Dragons, and with the quality touches shown against Stormers, then we can compete with anyone in the league.

However, Dai Young should also keep in mind that any points are good points from the South African trip, so if a game is not going our way, then pressing the nuclear button and focusing on securing try bonus points should be done earlier rather than later. If they lead to a losing bonus point as well, then even better.

The primary focus will be on competing though, and as we get a long and important fixture block underway heading into Europe and the festive derbies, this Cardiff team just needs to keep improving on the field and growing in confidence week-on-week.

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