245 days after the 2016/17 Pro12 season kicked it off it will draw to a close on Saturday, with Cardiff Blues making the trip up over Caerphilly Mountain to the Constructaquote Stadium where we will meet Newport Gwent Dragons.
Ten wins, ten losses and a draw up to this point leaves us on 49 points and in seventh place, seven points short of our finishing spot last year, but this year with the all-important Champions Cup play-offs still to come.
Despite this game having nothing on it in terms of league position for Cardiff, the likelihood of Connacht leapfrogging us being >1% due to points difference, it’s still important as a confidence booster ahead of a trip to an as yet unconfirmed French Top14 club. After last week’s struggle to victory over Zebre, a good performance here could be just what the doctor ordered.
Saturday will certainly be an interesting occasion for a number of off-field reasons though. Firstly, due to a fixture clash with Newport County FC who have priority use of Rodney Parade, the game will take place in Caerphilly.
It will be the first time that a professional Cardiff side has played at Virginia Park, now the Constructaquote Stadium, since May 2003 when the blue and blacks were victorious thanks to 23 points from Iestyn Harris and a try from the great Donovan van Vuuren!
Since then Caerphilly RFC have slowly slipped down the leagues, going from European Shield finalists in 2003, to Division Two East currently. The facilities may not be exactly what the Cardiff players are used to, but the hard work of those at Caerphilly to get the stadium up to a Pro12 standard should be acknowledged and applauded.
The second off-field story comes in the form of the proposed WRU takeover of the Newport Gwent Dragons. On Tuesday the shareholders of Newport RFC will vote over whether to allow the WRU to take ownership of Rodney Parade as well as the professional entity, a caveat to the takeover insisted upon by the governing body.
If they vote yes then NGD will become solely ‘Dragons’ under the full WRU ownership and Newport RFC will continue separately, while if they vote ‘no’ then Dragons will likely continue for next season based elsewhere in Gwent leaving Newport RFC’s unclear.
There’s been a fair bit of criticism levelled at Cardiff fans for perceived ‘meddling’ on social media, but the truth of the matter is that a fair proportion of fans are actually quite sad to see our closest and oldest rivals, Newport Rugby, going through a desperately difficult time in their long and illustrious history.
You have to go back to January 1876, and the first game in Cardiff Rugby’s history, for the beginning of the rivalry, where Newport one by two conversions to nil on Wentloog Marshes. 141 years of joint history has followed, from the friendlies to the Welsh Premier Division and even two National Cup Finals.
Of the games between the Cardiff and Newport sides at the top level the overall record currently stands at Played 423, Cardiff wins 212, Newport wins 152 and 59 Draws. Unfortunately, whatever way the vote goes, that top level history will now come to an end, with the second tier semi-professional sides carrying it on.
Back to on-field matters though, and it’s not been a good season for NGD. Four wins and 17 losses leaves them 10th in the Pro12, four points worse off than last season and with a very real possibility of finishing below one of the Italian teams. If they lose in Caerphilly then only a draw between Zebre and Treviso would save them from that embarrassment.
They are currently on a run of 11 straight defeats in all competitions, miserable form that was summed up last week as they blew a 17 point lead with 10 minutes to go away at Edinburgh. In fact, NGD haven’t won away from Rodney Parade since March 2015 in the league, the size of the job that faces the WRU spelled out in a few sentences.
In head-to-head terms it’s not pretty reading for fans to the East either, as Cardiff are currently on a streak of four-straight wins in the derby, stretching back to Christmas 2014, with the most recent game ending 27-16 on Boxing Day thanks to tries from Steve Shingler, Kris Dacey and Josh Navidi.
Head Coach Kingsley Jones has opted for two changes to the side that lost out in Edinburgh, with Welsh international Tyler Morgan returning to fitness at centre, while prop Sam Hobbs joins fellow Cardiff old boys T Rhys Thomas, Matthew Screech and Cory Hill in the starting line-up. Craig Mitchell is also involved as tighthead cover on the bench.
NGD: Carl Meyer, Adam Hughes, Tyler Morgan, Sam Beard, Pat Howard, Angus O’Brien, Charlie Davies; Sam Hobbs, Thomas Rhys Thomas, Brok Harris, Matthew Screech, Cory Hill, Lewis Evans (c), Nic Cudd, Ollie Griffiths
Replacements: Ellis Shipp, Phil Price, Craig Mitchell, Rynard Landman, Harrison Keddie, Sarel Pretorius, Geraint Rhys Jones, Jack Dixon
Danny Wilson, on the other hand, has made five changes to the Cardiff team which struggled past Zebre last week. Four are enforced, with Aled Summerhill, Josh Navidi, Kris Dacey and Rhys Gill being struck down with injuries, while the fifth is tactical.
Matthew Morgan, Sion Bennett, Matthew Rees and Corey Domachowski come in for the injured players, whilst Lloyd Williams replaces Tomos at scrum-half in a nod to the fact that Lloyd will more than likely start out in France for the play-off, rather than any slight on Tomos’ performance last week.
The bench has a rather makeshift feel to it as Ethan Lewis could make his first Pro12 appearance of the season, Anton Peikrishvili covers loosehead with Kieron Assiratti on the tighthead, Seb Davies is called up for the first time since February while Kirby Myhill will offer back row cover.
On the bright side Tom James makes a welcome return to the matchday squad after being out since the Leinster game. It will certainly be a big boost to the team if TJ can get some minutes under his belt ahead of the play-offs.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Rhun Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams; Corey Domachowski, Matthew Rees, Taufa’ao Filise, Jarrad Hoeata, Macauley Cook, Sion Bennett, Ellis Jenkins (c), Nick Williams
Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Anton Peikrishvili, Keiron Assiratti, Seb Davies, Kirby Myhill, Tomos Williams, Steve Shingler, Tom James
Although the game is a dead rubber, motivation should be there in abundance for the Cardiff players. Obviously the fact it’s a Welsh derby should be enough, and add to that the fact that there are squad places to be nailed down for the play-offs and a try bonus point owed to NGD after the Boxing Day game, we should be coming out all guns blazing.
The pitch at Caerphilly has been watered heavily this week, while I’m informed it’s actually quite wide, although fans stood at the side of the pitch will give it a compact feel, one many of the players won’t be used to.
NGD will want to drag us into a dog fight, like they did to Scarlets at Judgement Day. Put the pressure on, force errors and take the game to us. Therefore, the percentage game will need to be used by Cardiff. Kick for territory well, ensure the set piece is solid and make the most of possession in good areas.
On paper we have the team to win comfortably, match that with the desire and quality shown against Ospreys and we’ll come out on top in Caerphilly, take confidence with us towards the play-offs. So, for the last time in a top flight game against Newport, come on Cardiff!!
Stats (Since 2003)
Cardiff Blues record v NGD: W 19 L 8
Newport form: LLLLL
Cardiff form: LLDWW
Newport top try scorers: Pat Howard, Sarel Pretorius (6)
Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)
Newport top points scorer: Angus O’Brien (162)
Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (209)
Ian Davies (WRU) – Refereed us three times this season in wins over Munster and Treviso as well as the draw in Ulster. One of the better officials in the competition in my opinion. Fair, consistent and explains decisions clearly, and means we avoid Nigel Owens more importantly.