Preview: NGD v Cardiff

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)

Ref Watch

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preview: Cardiff v Zebre

Rugby returns to the Arms Park for the first time since the first weekend in March on Friday night as Pro12 bottom side Zebre arrive for the penultimate game of the regular season, and the last at CAP.

After the bonus-point win over Ospreys last time, Danny Wilson has largely stuck with the same squad, and will be hoping to gather some more momentum with the Champions Cup play-offs fast approaching, as well as re-discovering that winning mentality.

Of course we all remember the embarrassing home defeat to Zebre back at the start of 2013/14, when the Italians secured their first ever Pro12 win in the game at CAP, but since then there’s been two convincing results with a 90-18 aggregate score in Cardiff’s favour.

maxresdefault
Zebre celebrate that win back in 2013

 

This season has been predictably disappointing for Zebre, just three wins and six losing bonus points leaving them on 18 points in 12th place. However, such is the way Champions Cup places are qualified for, they still have plenty to play for as they are just a point behind compatriots Treviso who they play next week in the hunt for a place at that top table of European rugby.

Zebre will be wanting to take some momentum into that fixture with a performance on Friday, and they started the month looking a good bet to do that, with back-to-back home wins over Connacht and Newport, before a heavy defeat away in Glasgow. Playing on the road has long been an achilles heel, as one away win this season proves.

8-04-17-Zebre-Rugby-v-Newport-Gwent-Dragons
NGD players look dejected as they lose in Parma

 

Director of Rugby Gianluca Guidi makes seven changes from the side that lost in Scotland last time out, with Edoardo Padovani, Carlo Canna and Marcello Violi coming in at full-back, fly-half and scrum-half, respectively, making South African winger Kayle Van Zyle the only non-Italian international in the back line.

It’s a similar story up front as props Andrea Lovotti and Pietro Ceccarelli come in alongside back rower Jacopo Sarto, to leave only incoming number eight Derick Minnie and incumbent lock Gideon Koegelenberg as the only men without Italian caps.

With only New Zealander Kurt Baker not having represented the Azzurri on the bench the squad is jam packed with international experience, despite that not coming at the highest level.

Zebre: Edoardo Padovani, Kayle Van Zyle, Giulio Bisegni, Tommaso Castello (c), Mattia Bellini, Carlo Canna, Marcello Violi; Derick Minnie, Jacopo Sarto, Maxime Mbandà, Federico Ruzza, Gideon Koegelenberg, Pietro Ceccarelli, Oliviero Fabiani, Andrea Lovotti

Subs: Tommaso D’Apice, Guillermo Roan, Dario Chistolini, Joshua Furno, Andries Van Schalkwyk, Guglielmo Palazzani, Kurt Baker, Matteo Pratichetti

Zebre_Rugby_Pagina_Facebook_Canna.jpg
Italy fly-half Carlo Canna starts for Zebre

 

Danny Wilson meanwhile has made three changes to the starting Xv that dispatched of the Ospreys at Judgement Day, with Gethin Jenkins (knee), Lloyd Williams (tactical) and Matthew Morgan (tactical) making way for Rhys Gill, making his first start since February, Tomos Williams and Aled Summerhill, as Rhun Williams switches to full-back.

Kirby Myhill, Corey Domachowski and Scott Andrews step up to the bench, as Wilson opts to give a few players a chance to prove themselves, while naming a squad more than capable of comfortably sweeping Zebre to the side.

Cardiff Blues: Rhun Williams, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Aled Summerhill, Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey, Taufa’ao Filise, Jarrad Hoeata, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins (c), Nick Williams

Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Corey Domachowski, Scott Andrews, James Down, Sion Bennett, Lloyd Williams, Steve Shingler, Matthew Morgan

Tomos Williams Leinster 1
Tomos Williams is back in the starting lineup

 

In some ways Friday may well feel like a bit of an anti-climax after the highs of Judgement Day, and while we count down to that end of season play-off the last two games are feeling somewhat of a formality that need to be ticked off the list before we can get down to business, however there’s a deeper meaning than that.

Cardiff Blues should be beating Zebre, and putting a number of points on them while we do it. No more ‘secure the win first and then go for the bonus point’, or ‘get a solid opening 20 minutes and go from there’. Let’s bully the opposition off the park and all the way back to Italy.

The top teams will expect a bonus point win against Zebre at home, they will expect to win all their home games, and they will expect to go France and compete in big games. This squad has the capability to be in that top team bracket, and there’s no time like the present to start acting like it.

Our forwards should have too much for their opposite numbers, especially if the back row play like they did against Ospreys, while there are tries in abundance from those backs. With plenty of quality to come off the bench there’s no reason that tomorrow should not be an 80 minute hammering. Come on Cardiff!!

Ospreys Cardiff Team
Let’s see plenty of this on Friday

 

Stats

Cardiff record v Zebre: W 6  L 3

Cardiff form: LLLDW

Zebre form: LLWWL

Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)

Zebre top try scorer: Federico Ruzza (6)

Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (209)

Zebre top points scorer: Carlo Canna (109)

Ref Watch

Frank Murphy (IRFU) – Only the Irishman’s fifth competition game, and his first involving Cardiff. Has refereed Zebre before as they beat Newport at the start of the month, showing the Italians his only yellow card to date.

Preview: Leinster v Cardiff

The Guinness Pro12 returns to action this weekend as Cardiff make the difficult trip over to Dublin to face the league leaders, three weeks after a home defeat to Munster effectively ended realistic hopes of qualifying for the top six.

With the big Challenge Cup quarter-final only a week away it is easy to get distracted by the thought of the day out to Gloucester, but this weekend will be very important in terms of some playing staking a claim for a starting spot at Kingsholm, as well as the recovery of match fitness and a chance to fix some errors that bugged throughout the last set of four fixtures.

There is also the small matter of revenge to deal with as well, as the home defeat suffered at the hands of Leinster that ended our unbeaten start to the season still leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Some distinctly suspect refereeing, including the awarding of a try that should never have been, claimed us not only of our 100% record, but also of our confidence that has ultimately left us where we are now.

gareth-anscombe-leinster-try
Gareth Anscombe’s try couldn’t stop defeat in the reverse fixture

Our opponents on the other hand have seen a vastly different season trajectory since the first fixture, winning ten of twelve Pro12 games to go two points clear at the table summit, while also having a home Champions Cup quarter-final against Wasps at the Aviva Stadium to look forward to.

Four bonus point wins from four during the Six Nations block of fixtures really showed them flexing their strength in depth muscles, and leaves them in a fantastic possession to push for both domestic and European honours as the season draws to a close.

Cardiff though have, for the first time in a while, really impressed in the pre-match media. The message from Danny Wilson, Lloyd Williams and Gareth Anscombe has really been one of pressure off. No aims have been set for this Pro12 fixture block, performance is the key, and the focus has been on just certain areas of the game. Baby steps are required.

Munster Home Team 2
Cardiff players try to re-group during the Munster defeat

Over the last few months where the injuries have mounted the results have fluctuated there has still been an element of pressure applied from the coaching staff, and the players themselves, to improve the performances, when perhaps just concentrating on performance levels were required, so to now see an acceptance of our floundering position oddly becomes a positive.

That’s not to say I don’t care completely about the result, a decent performance but still on the end of a hammering does nobody any good. On paper at least, we should be able to compete with this Leinster side, although if the season had been played on paper we’d be in a lot better position than we are now!

Leo Cullen has been able to call on some returning Irish internationals as Cian Healey and Dan Leavy pack down, as does Josh Van Der Flier who returns to fitness. James Tracy, Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery are also back involved after bit part roles with Ireland during the Six Nations.

Cian Healy
Cian Healy returns from Irish duty

Leinster will be without their big name internationals though as the likes of Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Sean O’Brien, Jonny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are rested ahead of their European clash next week, while Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney have returned from the Irish camp with injuries.

Elsewhere we see highly rated youngster Adam Byrne on the right wing, Cardiff’s persistent nemesis Isa Nacewa on the opposite flank and controversial try scorer in the reverse fixture Rhys Ruddock starting at number eight in a Leinster outfit that has seven of the starting XV on over 70 provincial caps.

Leinster: Joey Carbery, Adam Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin, Noel Reid, Isa Nacewa (c), Ross Byrne; Luke McGrath, Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Michael Bent, Ross Molony, Hayden Triggs, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock

Replacements: James Tracy, Peter Dooley, Mike Ross, Mick Kearney, Max Deegan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Tom Daly, Fergus McFadden

Isa Nacewa Leinster
Isa Nacewa has a habit of scoring against Cardiff

Danny Wilson is also able to welcome back some of his internationals, with Kris Dacey and Alex Cuthbert free to start and Scott Andrews on the bench. Sam Warburton doesn’t join them though as he is rested after playing every minute of Wales’ Six Nations campaign before the Gloucester game.

The big team news though is from the replacements bench, where Gethin and Ellis Jenkins return to the matchday squad. In Ellis’ case it’s for the first time in almost three months, since the Glasgow away fixture, while Ulster at home at the beginning of December was Gethin’s last appearance. Very well timed comebacks ahead of next week.

Gethin Jenkins Ulster
Gethin Jenkins is back after four months out

Other changes to the team that lost to Munster see Blaine Scully, who will captain the side, return to the team on the left wing, Rey Lee-Lo takes Willis Halaholo’s spot at outside centre, while Tomos Williams gets his long awaited opportunity to usurp Lloyd as the starting scrum-half.

Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan; Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Steven Shingler, Blaine Scully (C); Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Corey Domachowski, Kristian Dacey, Anton Peikrishvili, George Earle, Jarrad Hoeata, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Nick Williams

Replacements: Matthew Rees, Gethin Jenkins, Scott Andrews, Sion Bennett, Ellis Jenkins, Lloyd Williams, Willis Halaholo, Tom James

Alex Cuthbert Treviso
Alex Cuthbert is back from Wales duty

Overall it’s a competitive looking side, and to have options off the bench is a luxury we have certainly not been afforded in a long while now. It’ll be a big ask of the pack to match their Irish counterparts, but if they can do that I certainly believe our backs at least match those of Leinster’s.

Danny Wilson has talked about targeting certain areas of the game. Of course he didn’t reveal exactly which areas those were, but I’d like to think that the set piece was certainly one of them. It would be good to have a really high accuracy rate across the scrums and lineout, and most importantly be able to utilise attacking set pieces either through driving mauls or good first phase attacking ball.

The development of quick ball will also be of importance, something we struggled with against Munster as we lost the battle at the breakdown. Big ball carrying performances are required, while a shift from the tight five is needed to secure the quick ball for the backs. If we can improve on these areas, while keeping our recent level in defence, then the signs will be encouraging.

Whilst I’m not expecting too much from the game, I want to be left feeling positive ahead of the much anticipated trip to Gloucester next week, so let’s have an encouraging performance and, most importantly, no injuries!

alex-cuthbert-treviso-celebration
Hopefully more celebrations to come

Stats

Cardiff record v Leinster: W 5  D 2  L 20

Leinster form: WWWWD

Cardiff form: LWWLW (Not including AW Cup)

Leinster top try scorers: Isa Nacewa, Adam Byrne (9)

Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)

Leinster top points scorer: Isa Nacewa (153)

Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (190)

Ref Watch

George Clancy (IRFU) – A late change for Marius Mitrea who has pulled out through illness. Very much a sideways move!

Preview: Cardiff v Munster

The Six Nations set of Pro12 fixtures is finished off with Cardiff Blues welcoming Pro12 high-flyers Munster to the Arms Park on Saturday, before the league takes a three-week sabbatical ahead of the season run-in.

Danny Wilson has spoken a fair bit over the last few weeks about the requirement to take three wins from the four matches that make up this set, and after the opening defeat to Connacht at home, this weekend’s fixture becomes somewhat must win as sixth place is somehow still achievable, although Champions Cup rugby may not be. That is for another time though.

On the back of last week’s victory over Edinburgh there should be a confidence amongst the squad, especially in the manner of the win. Coming back from 17-6 down was impressive, but not even close to the 37 phase defensive set that lasted the closing five minutes of the match and secured the four points. The performance will have to reach another level to keep up with Munster however.

alex-cuthbert-treviso-celebration
There’s been plenty to celebrate the last two weeks

 

The Irish side have been flying this season, losing just four games across domestic and European competition and currently sitting third in the Pro12, with a home Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulouse in the offing.

Saturday’s visitors have lost just once on the road in the league this season, away to Leinster at the Aviva, while a surprise home defeat at the hands of the Scarlets last weekend was the first loss in nine games for the Munstermen, although one of their early losses did of course come against Cardiff in Cork back in September.

Obviously many circumstances have changed since then, notably Cardiff going from a real rich vein of form, where we dominated Munster up front and did not let them live with our counter attack, to an injury hit side lacking any sort of confidence.

dan-fish-munster
Dan Fish was at the peak of his powers back in September before injury struck

 

Munster on the other hand have been inspired, and it would be remiss of me not to mention Anthony Foley in the first meeting between the sides since his unfortunate passing. A great coach, player and, most importantly, man. Someone who really epitomised the loyalty and passion that club rugby can create, and a great loss to not only the province, but to the rugby world as a whole. RIP Axel.

Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus has been hit hard by Ireland call-ups, with eight players retained by Joe Schmidt ahead of the follow-up to this weekend’s Wales v Ireland clash. Munster do benefit from Dave Kilcoyne, Tommy O’Donnell and Andrew Conway being released at least, as they make five changes to the starting XV that came away empty handed from the Scarlets clash.

Jaco Taute and Rory Scannell form a new centre partnership, while Ian Keatley replaces the rested Tyler Bleyendaal in the backs. Up front, Darren O’Shea comes into the second row for the ill Dave Foley, while former Cardiff favourite Robin Copeland returns to fitness and starts at eight.

Munster: Andrew Conway, Darren Sweetnam, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Ronan O’Mahony, Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer, Darren O’Shea, Billy Holland (c), Dave O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, Robin Copeland

Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Peter McCabe, Brian Scott, Fineen Wycherley, Conor Oliver, Abrie Griesel, Dan Goggin, Francis Saili

robincopeland
Robin Copeland will make a return to the Arms Park

 

Meanwhile Cardiff haven’t been hit to quite the same extent as their opponents, but are still feeling the impact of Kris Dacey, Scott Andrews, Sam Warburton and Alex Cuthbert being retained by Team Wales. With only Sam in with a shout of featuring against Ireland it may seem bizarre to be without his three colleagues, but Rob Howley has retained all on the basis that they are back in camp on Sunday.

Matthew Rees is brought in to replace Dacey, Fa’ao Filise takes Andrews’ place on the bench while Aled Summerhill will make his first Pro12 start of the season as he fills the gap left by Cuthbert rather than Blaine Scully, who failed a late fitness test.

Changes elsewhere come in the form of Corey Domachowski, who gets the nod at tighthead with Rhys Gill injured, while Josh Navidi returns to fitness and will start at openside with Sion Bennett dropping to the bench where he is joined by Marc Thomas and Rhun Williams.

Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Aled Summerhill, Willis Halaholo, Steven Shingler, Tom James, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams (c); Corey Domachowski, Matthew Rees, Anton Peikrishvili, George Earle, Jarrad Hoeata, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Nick Williams

Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Marc Thomas, Taufa’ao Filise, James Down, Sion Bennett, Tomos Williams, Garyn Smith, Rhun Williams

josh-navidi-connacht
Josh Navidi returns from injury in the 7 jersey

 

The forward battle will be huge on Saturday, and will essentially decide the game as whoever is able to lay the best platform for their talented backline will undoubtedly be in the driving seat to taken home the spoils. Josh Navidi’s return is very welcome as, despite some excellent try scoring form from Sion Bennett, we have missed the breakdown work of a natural openside.

Set pieces will need to be tightened up somewhat if we are to properly compete, with the lineout a potential issue. Matthew Rees’ throwing often leaves something to be desired in attack, as does the formation of our driving maul. The defending of that very same area has been hideously woeful and the best thing to do would be to avoid that, but we should at least take some solace from a strong scrum.

Steve Shingler could well be a key man at inside centre, as it seems recently than when he plays well so does the time. Having a footballer at 12 who is not afraid to run a crash ball line has been a revelation, and it certainly takes the pressure off both Gareth Anscombe and Lloyd Williams with another receiver option to be used, while Willis Halaholo outside him benefits from an extra yard of pace.

Munster will no doubt be hurting from both losing to us in the reverse fixture, as well as that defeat to Scarlets last week, but if Cardiff can capitalise on their emerging confidence and make a fast start then maybe we can cause some problems. From there it could well be a repeat of that defensive effort against Edinburgh to get anything out of the game.

A massive game this weekend, so let’s get down to CAP in numbers and really get behind the boys, as the team spirit and pride in the jersey shown last week deserves to be recognised. It’s make or break now, and a top six will really make this season a success. Come on Cardiff!!

cap-v-newport
It would be great to see CAP looking even a little something like this

 

Stats

Cardiff record v Munster: W 11  L 16

Cardiff form: WWLWW

Munster form: WWWWL

Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)

Munster top try scorers: Jaco Taute, Ronan O’Mahony (8)

Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (182)

Munster top points scorer: Tyler Bleyendaal (175)

Ref Watch

Mike Adamson (SRU) – Only the former Scottish 7s international’s fourth Pro12 game, but will be his third involving Munster, with two previous home wins for them over Newport and Treviso. Not his first visit to CAP though, refereed our bonus point victory over Bristol in January, and did it very well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preview: Edinburgh v Cardiff

For the first time since the first weekend in January, Cardiff Blues find themselves on the road in the Pro12, and heading up to Scotland for a capital city showdown with Edinburgh. After last week’s second half renaissance against Treviso the target has to be continuing to re-build form, and a consistent squad selection will no doubt help with that.

It’s easy to remember the forty point haul in that period after half-time last Saturday, in what was a feast of attacking rugby spearheaded by impressive performances from Matthew Morgan and Alex Cuthbert. However, it’s important not to forget the lacklustre slog that was the first half of the match.

alex-cuthbert-treviso
Alex Cuthbert put in a MOTM performance

 

There’s no doubt that overall the Treviso win was a step in the right direction, but there will need to be another improvement in performance and consistency against an Edinburgh side settling in to their new Myreside home and mount a late charge for the Champions Cup play-off spots.

They are currently sat outside of the required positions in 9th, nine points behind Connacht above them, however have not shown the form required to challenge either the Irish province or Cardiff, with three losses in three weeks so far over the Six Nations period.

A narrow defeat in the re-arranged game against Munster was followed by a losing bonus point away in Ulster, not to be shirked at, but last week’s heavy 39-10 loss in Leinster is sure to knock confidence. Two wins in nine Pro12 games sounds familiar, as does a Challenge Cup quarter-final, to underline how similar the two teams are despite the 13 point difference between the sides.

Nick Williams Edinburgh
Cardiff beat Edinburgh on the opening day

 

Perhaps a big factor in Friday’s game will, once again, be the players who aren’t there. For Edinburgh the list is lengthy, with Ross Ford, Allan Dell, Simon Berghan, John Hardie, Hamish Watson and Duncan Weir involved in Saturday’s Scotland v Wales encounter, while a 12-strong injury list adds to their woes.

Duncan Hodge has named the same forward pack that were defeated so badly by Leinster last week, choosing to make three changes in his backline as Blair Kinghorn, Rory Scholes and former Cardiff man Jason Tovey all start.

Despite last week’s score, the back row including Magnus Bradbury and Cornell Du Preez will be a physical presence, while young props Jack Cosgrove and Murray McCallum have high hopes placed on their shoulders.

Edinburgh: Blair Kinghorn, Damien Hoyland, Glenn Bryce, Chris Dean, Rory Scholes, Jason Tovey, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne; Jack Cosgrove, Neil Cochrane (c), Murray McCallum, Fraser McKenzie, Ben Toolis, Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie, Cornell Du Preez

Replacements: George Turner, Derrick Appiah, Kevin Bryce, Grant Gilchrist, Lewis Carmichael, Nathan Fowles, Junior Rasolea, Michael Allen

jason-tovey-270943284
Jason Tovey back in his Cardiff days, he starts against us on Friday

 

On the flip side, Cardiff are experiencing less of a player shortage thanks to just Sam Warburton being deemed worthy of a call-up to the Wales squad, with Kris Dacey, Scott Andrews and Alex Cuthbert all being released back to the club for Friday’s game., while only 10 players are currently on the injury list.

This allows Danny Wilson to make less than four changes to a starting XV for just the second time this season, with Anton Peikrishvili returning to tighthead in place of Fa’ao Filise, and Tom James makes his first start since the Ulster home game at the start of December, replacing the injured Blaine Scully.

On the bench the only change is Aled Summerhill takes the place of James, with Kirby Myhill continuing to offer back row cover, as Cardiff look to benefit from naming a settled squad at long last.

Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Alex Cuthbert, Willis Halaholo, Steve Shingler, Tom James, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams (c); Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey, Anton Peikrishvili, George Earle, Jarrad Hoeata, Macauley Cook, Sion Bennett, Nick Williams

Replacements: Matthew Rees, Corey Domachowski, Scott Andrews, James Down, Kirby Myhill, Tomos Williams, Garyn Smith, Aled Summerhill

tom-james-ulster
Tom James is back in the starting XV

 

There’s no doubt it’s a strong side, with the Welsh international half-back pairing of Lloyd and Anscombe hopefully being able to supply a back three combination that have scored 17 tries between them in all competitions despite James and Cuthbert missing a combined 15 games.

Up front the pack will hope to follow Leinster’s example of dominating around the park, with the Irish province making 150 metres more than Edinburgh despite carrying on 18 fewer occasions.

Casting our minds back to the opening day of the season at the Arms Park, and on Edinburgh’s visit we recall Nick Williams carrying for 50 metres on his own. If we can get another big ball carrying performance from him, assisted by others including the counter attacking prowess of Matthew Morgan, then we’ll be on the front foot.

nick-williams-treviso
Nick Williams is very impressive when on top form

 

In defence a committed and consistently quick line speed will be key, as we look to force Edinburgh into the mistakes Treviso made last week with the absence of a natural breakdown operator again a potential issue. Utilising turnover ball, or counter-attacking opportunities, will then be key which should play to the strengths of the team selected.

Much of the pre-match media this week has been focused on whether the top six is still achievable for Cardiff, but let’s not get carried away on the back of one decent half at home to one of the Italian sides.

It was impressive, no doubt, however there’s still a long way to go in terms of being able to compete with those at the top end of the league. So for now let’s just focus on beating the teams that are put in front of us, starting with Edinburgh on Friday and a 100% committed performance for the full 80 minutes.

alex-cuthbert-treviso-celebration
Hopefully this kind of team spirit can shine through

 

Stats

Cardiff record v Edinburgh: W 17  L 10

Edinburgh form: WWLLL

Cardiff form: LWWLW

Edinburgh top try scorer: Damien Hoyland (7)

Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)

Edinburgh top points scorer: Duncan Weir (115)

Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (174)

Ref Watch

David Wilkinson (IRFU) – One of the longer serving referees on the league he refereed this fixture back in 2011, as well as the reverse just last year, both games seeing Cardiff wins. Has only officiated one of our games this season, the away win at Zebre in September, where he showed two yellow cards to each side.

 

 

Preview: Cardiff v Treviso

Right, last week was as bad as it gets, we are all aware of that, fans, players, coaches. However, it’s time to move on from that and ensure it’s a one-off as Treviso arrive at the Arms Park this weekend for the second game in this mini block of Pro12 fixtures during the Six Nations.

There’s a definite feeling that only a bonus point win will do this weekend, with a performance definitely owed to the fans and the fact being that this is now absolutely last chance saloon for any attempt on sixth place. Following last week’s loss, only three wins from the next three games will suffice really.

kris-dacey-connacht
Cardiff struggled badly against Connacht last week

 

This week’s visitors being one of the two league whipping boys means that the pressure is on to secure the four try win, with 10 points at home to the Italian sides is a must-have for any side serious about mounting a challenge on the top half of the Pro12.

Our trip to Treviso earlier in the season also came in an international period, but did yield a victory as tries from Rhun Williams, Willis Halaholo and Macauley Cook secured a 34-28 scoreline. Although the bonus point wasn’t quite gained on that occasion, after a few years of indifferent performances in Italy the win should actually serve as a confidence booster.

willis-halaholo-treviso
Willis Halaholo scored a try on his debut

 

Treviso themselves are weakened by eight Italian internationals being retained by the national side, although Francesco Minto, Tommaso Allan and Angelo Esposito are starting having been released.

Aside from the eight missing due to the Six Nations there are 10 further unavailable players, a real boost for Cardiff seeing names like Tommaso Benvenuti, Abraham Steyn, Luke McLean and Jayden Hayward having to sit out the fixture.

Despite that there is still the regular Treviso half-back pairing of Tito Tebaldi and Ian McKinley, as well as captain Dean Budd being joined in the second row by the familiar face of Filo Paulo, making his return to the Arms Park after leaving in 2015.

Treviso: Luca Sperandio, Michael Tagicakibau, Tommaso Iannone, Thomas Allan, Angelo Esposito, Ian McKinley, Tito Tebaldi, Robert Barbieri, Francesco Minto, Marco Lazzaroni, Dean Budd (c), Teofilo Paulo ,Titian Pasquali, Luke Bigi, Federico Zani.

Replacements: Davide Giazzon, Matthew Zanusso, Jody Lipstick, Jean Francois Montauriol, Guglilemo Zanini, Giorgio Bronzini, Andrea Pratichetti, David Odiete

michael-tagicakibau
Michael Tagicakibu scores in the reverse fixture

 

Danny Wilson meanwhile is not struck down with unavailability lists such as Treviso’s, a first for Cardiff’s management team not to have the most players missing, but we are still without a number of key players.

Gethin Jenkins, Dillon Lewis, Josh Turnbull, Lewis Jones and Dan Fish are still long-terms absentees, while they continue to be joined by Brad Thyer and Ellis Jenkins as the pair recover from head injuries. The medical room has been further filled by Rey Lee-Lo and Josh Navidi this week as they both miss out on Treviso’s visit.

The addition of Navidi to the injury list means that the back row is totally without a specialist openside flanker, resulting in Northampton loanee Sion Bennett being awarded the number seven shirt for Saturday, which is a worry considering even with an openside last week, Cardiff were well and truly dominated by Connacht at the breakdown.

In the way of good news there are two positives this week though. Firstly, George Earle is free to play again after his unfairly long suspension for an alleged eye gouge against Bath before Christmas, and he will link up with Jarrad Hoeata in the second row. Also, Steve Shingler is fit to start this week after pulling out late against Connacht and will replace Rey Lee-Lo to form a centre partnership with Willis Halaholo.

george-earle-bath-1
George Earle returns after being sent-off away at Bath

 

Elsewhere in the side there is a change up front with Fa’ao Filise replacing the somewhat harshly dropped Anton Peikrishvili, while in the backs Alex Cuthbert is released from Team Wales duty and will start ahead of Rhun Williams.

I could write paragraph after paragraph on the week the winger has had, but to be honest it’s as you were for Cuthbert from a Cardiff point of view. Four tries in 12 games this season, nine appearances away from a century of caps and nine tries away from the 50 mark, Cuthy is a cult hero at the Arms Park, and quite frankly there’s no need to re-confirm the obvious quality that he possesses.

On the bench we see Corey Domachowksi return in place of Marc Thomas, James Down drops to the replacements to make way for Earle, while Garyn Smith will provide centre cover. The concern is that once again Kirby Myhill is providing back row cover, although questions have been asked over the whereabouts of Seb Davies this week.

Cardiff: Matthew Morgan, Alex Cuthbert, Willis Halaholo, Steve Shingler, Blaine Scully, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams (c); Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey, Taufa’ao Filise, George Earle, Jarrad Hoeata, Macauley Cook, Sion Bennett, Nick Williams

Replacements: Matthew Rees, Corey Domachowski, Scott Andrews, James Down, Kirby Myhill, Tomos Williams, Garyn Smith, Tom James

alex-cuthbert-bath
Alex Cuthbert has been released by Wales

 

So, a big game that could mean some unwelcome pressure to secure a comfortable win over one of the league’s whipping boys and infamous poor travellers. However, the big lesson that seems to have been completely forgotten by Cardiff is to do the basics well.

Thinking back to the heady days of September’s unbeaten run and there was nothing flashy about the performances. Forwards carried and rucked well, backs attacked with pace and directness. Kicking was carried out only when necessary, and with a clear tactical purpose that it could actually be chased. The defence was actually not even as organised as it is now, meaning if the rest of the game functions even slightly, a result should follow.

Talking baby steps from the Connacht debacle though, the attacking breakdown work and an improvement in the kicking have to be priorities. Get them right and you have a platform. I’m not usually a fan of the phrase, but ‘earning the right to go wide’ seems an apt game plan this week, and can be put to good use with the outside backs we possess.

Despite the disappointing nature of last week’s loss, the never ending optimism which seems to improbably live inside me means I’m weirdly excited for Saturday’s game still. It can only be a love of Cardiff Rugby that keeps that going, I just hope the current custodians of the jersey can do it justice against Treviso.

team-v-pau
Going to need more of this spirit on Saturday

 

Stats

Cardiff record v Treviso: W 9  D 1  L 3

Cardiff form: LLWWL (excluding Anglo-Welsh)

Treviso form: LLLLL

Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)

Treviso top try scorer: Dean Budd (4)

Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (129)

Treviso top points scorer: Tommaso Allan (87)

Ref Watch

John Lacey (IRFU) – Some say that Lacey refereeing is a terrifying prospect, but Lacey without a TMO?! Hold on to your hats, ladies and gents. That said, he did referee our opening day victory over Edinburgh, fingers crossed this Saturday can kick-off the second half of our season.

 

 

Preview: Cardiff v Connacht

After a month off due to European and Anglo-Welsh action, the Guinness Pro12 returns to life this weekend as Cardiff Blues welcome Connacht to the Arms Park early on Sunday afternoon. Despite being during the Six Nations, Danny Wilson has still been able to name a strong side and knows that wins are now absolutely crucial in the hunt for sixth place.

It is always a strange time of year to be a fan of club rugby in the northern hemisphere as the Six Nations does completely dominate the landscape in terms of TV, radio and social media coverage, but often this time of year is when the really important results occur in terms of shaping how the run-in will look to the Pro12 season.

When you have teams like Munster and Leinster, who despite being hit hard by Irish call-ups can still perform well thanks to such terrific strength in depth, going up against the likes of Glasgow and Ospreys, who are decimated by call-ups from Scotland and Wales, respectively, it creates a massive imbalance in the league and is unfair to an extent.

alex-cuthbert-munster
Munster are always hard hit by internationals, while Alex Cuthbert is missing for Cardiff

 

However, until World Rugby get serious on a global season calendar, then this is what we’re stuck with and actually, and keep this to yourselves, it doesn’t half benefit Cardiff this year. With just Sam Warburton being in line to make the starting 23 week-in, week-out, and Alex Cuthbert on the fringes, we’re really only losing two players on the basis that Cam Dolan does not really feature and any U20s are able to be released for Pro12 games.

This could be a massive positive for us as we look to take advantage of other team’s international induced weaknesses and stake a last-ditch claim for the all-important sixth place. Six points behind Ulster, and giving up a game in hand, it will take a massive upturn in form to challenge, but retaining the vast majority of our players during the Six Nations gives us a great chance.

We’re at a point where one defeat could spell disaster if other results went against us, but after two European Challenge Cup wins to qualify for the quarter-finals we should be able to take confidence, and with games against Treviso and Edinburgh, both below us in the league, and Munster, hit by Ireland call-ups, to come, I am confident we can kick on.

Sunday’s opponents Connacht are also below us in the league, but are afforded a similar luxury to ourselves in that they are only minimally impacted by international call-ups around this time of year, and in fact many suggest that’s one of the contributing factors to the Irish province’s run to the Pro12 title last season during a World Cup year.

John Muldoon lift the Guinness Pro12 Trophy 28/5/2016
Connacht are the reigning Pro12 champions

There is one big motivational factor for Sunday’s game aside from the sixth place battle, which is the simple fact that we owe Connacht a performance after the reverse fixture at the end of November. An 18-7 win was strewn with errors and started a run of games whereby we were throwing away matches due to our own inaccuracies, rather than losing due to the quality of the opposition.

That game also started the great winter injury crisis of 2017, and as such it’s time to assert some revenge on rugby fate and give the Galway based province a good old Cardiff Arms Park hammering.

Connacht have named a fairly strong side of their own for the trip to Wales, and an experienced one at that. Only two of the starting XV are under 10 appearances, with eight players over 50 appearances, three over 100, and one of those, John Muldoon, will lead the side whilst winning his 293rd Connacht cap. They’re not a team to be underestimated in that respect.

Irish international trio Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy start in the back three, although they will lack the firepower of Bundee Aki in the centre and scrum-half Kieran Marmion. In the forwards they can rely on Denis Buckley to anchor the scrum, with Muldoon at eight, but they are lacking Ultan Dillane who is with the Irish Six Nations Squad.

Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Stacey Ili, Craig Ronaldson, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, John Cooney; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, JP Cooney, Quinn Roux, James Cannon, Sean O’Brien, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (c)

Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Ronan Loughney, John Andress, Naulia Dawai, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Caolin Blade, Tom Farrell, Danie Poolman

john-cooney-try-connacht
Connacht celebrate scoring in the reverse fixture

Danny Wilson meanwhile has matched the strength of his counterpart Pat Lam, naming Welsh internationals Matthew Morgan, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams, Rhys Gill and Josh Navidi in the starting line-ups, as well as Kris Dacey and Rhun Williams who have been released from their respective representative squads.

 

Samoan international Rey Lee-Lo continues his partnership with Steve Shingler in general, while Blaine Scully returns from a try-scoring time on USA national team duty to complete the back three. Georgian international Anton Peikrishvili is preferred to Scott Andrews at tighthead, while James Down and Jarrad Hoeata form the second row pairing.

Ellis Jenkins is still suffering from a head injury, so Macauley Cook starts at blindside, while on the bench the medical issues mean Marc Thomas and Sion Bennett could make their Cardiff Pro12 debuts after short-term signings from Jersey and Northampton respectively. Matthew Rees and Seb Davies complete the forward replacements.

The really big team news though is that Tom James is back! After being unavailable since before Christmas our top scorer returns to the bench and is part of some very strong backs options, as he is joined by Tomos Williams and Willis Halaholo, all three who could really take advantage of some tired Connacht legs on our plastic pitch.

Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Blaine Scully, Rey Lee-Lo, Steve Shingler, Rhun Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams (c); Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey, Anton Peikrishvili, Jarrad Hoeata, James Down, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Nick Williams

Replacements: Matthew Rees, Marc Thomas, Scott Andrews, Seb Davies, Sion Bennett, Tomos Williams, Willis Halaholo, Tom James

tom-james-ulster
Tom James returns to the matchday squad

 

Almost exactly five years to the date that we returned to CAP after the Leckwith exile, with a 22-15 win over Connacht, there’s a nice full circle aspect to this match, and I really fancy a heavy win to get this season back on track at long last. It’s do or die time, and we have an excellent chance to come out on top.

Let’s get back to September, as the second half of the season properly begins. Quick, direct attacking play is what I want to see in abundance. If the defence stays solid, as it has been recently, it sets the platform for attack, and with the backs we’ve picked accuracy should not be a problem. In short, I want to see a bonus point win. Come on Cardiff!

cap-v-newport
Let’s celebrate the return to CAP anniversary with a win

 

Stats

Cardiff form: WLLWW (excluding Anglo-Welsh Cup)

Connacht form: LLLWL

Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)

Connacht top try scorer: Niyi Adeolokun (5)

Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (129)

Connacht top points scorer: Jack Carty (96)

Ref Watch

Marius Mitrea (FIR): Usually a groan goes around when the Italian/Romanian’s name is seen but generally we have him away from CAP, and as one of the biggest homer referees in the league, we could be in luck on Sunday!