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Blues braced for back row battle

Guinness PRO12 Editor

28 Apr 2011

Cardiff Blues are bracing themselves for a full-blooded back-row battle when they meet Newport Gwent Dragons on Friday.

The Blues boast a back-row that includes the likes of Kiwi talisman Xavier Rush and Wales starlet Sam Warburton, as well as in-form youngster Andries Pretorius, arguably the capital city side’s player of the season.

But the Dragons possess no shortage of talent in that department either, with Dan Lydiate having enjoyed a wonderful season with Wales, Gavin Thomas seemingly back to his best and 20-year-old Toby Faletau receiving plenty of plaudits for his sensational form.

And with local derbies traditionally hard-fought affairs, it is no surprise that Blues boss Dai Young has highlighted the battle of the back rows as perhaps the crucial area in Friday’s fixture.

"It's going to be a real battle of the back-rows," said Young, who believes the Dragons’ back row is currently one of the best in the Magners League.

"It's probably the strength of the Dragons team and we have to make sure we match them.

"Gavin Thomas will be a big part of their game and we have to make sure he doesn't slow our ball down. Dan Lydiate has had an excellent season, he makes a lot of tackles and carries a lot of ball. And if we give Toby Faletau space with ball in hand he will give them plenty of go forward."

But while Young is clearly aware of the threat that particular Dragons trio present, he is delighted to be welcoming back one of his own big names to head that battle.

Young has been boosted by the return of Wales openside Warburton after being forced to do without the 22-year-old for the past three and a half months.

Warburton hasn’t played for the Blues since the win over Aironi in early January due to international commitments and a leg injury he sustained on the final weekend of RBS 6 Nations action.

The injury initially seemed set to rule him out for the remainder of the season but Warburton has fought back tirelessly, much to the delight of his coach. And with fellow No7 Martyn Williams a guest at the Royal Wedding, Warburton’s return couldn't be more timely.

"It was frustrating that he got injured but he's worked his socks off to get himself right," added Young.

"He's done the hard work and I'm delighted because his physicality will be vital against the Dragons."


Sam Warburton is finally available for the Blues

Warburton himself admits he has been desperate to get back into action after a frustrating period on the sidelines and he is relishing the opportunity to lock horns with some of his Wales team-mates at Rodney Parade.

Like Young, Warburton is fully aware of the size of the challenge presented by the Dragons back row, though, and he admits he won’t have an easy ride on his return to the day job.

"I'm feeling very good and never wanted the injury to finish my season," said Warburton.

"I don't really watch games I just focus on the back-row and contact area. The Dragons back-row were outstanding against the Ospreys a couple of weeks ago. That's going to be the big battle again. Lydiate is a great defender, you have Faletau in attack and Gavin at the breakdown.

"I rate Dan very highly. After every Wales game we sit down together and go through the game. He does a lot of the unseen work. He's a class defender and very rarely goes backwards. He's also effective at slowing the ball down at rucks.

"There will be plenty of banter and he's already dropped me a text. He's a competitive guy and will relish this one.

"The other guys are also really important. Toby's been great. It's important that we don't give him space and close him down quickly. Hopefully we can make him as ineffective as possible.

"Then Gavin is one of the in-form flankers in the league. He seems to perform every single game and it's important that we get rid of him at the breakdown. But we also want to get stuck into them."

With Warburton now back in the fold, Young is hoping former All Black No8 Rush will be back to his barnstorming best for what is a crucial encounter.

The Blues need just five points to secure their place in the Magners League Play-Offs and Young insists now is the time for last season’s outstanding performer to stand up and be counted.

"Xavier will be looking forward to it," continued Young.

"These are the games where he stands up and leads from the front.

"He's a big competitor and doesn't like it when people are talking about the other No8."


Dai Young is looking for a big performance from Xavier Rush

And there has certainly been plenty of talk surrounding Rush’s opposite number this weekend.

Tongan-born Faletau has been a revelation in just his second Magners League season. He is seen as one of the brightest prospects in Welsh rugby and has twice outplayed an Ospreys back-row containing the likes of All Blacks legend Jerry Collins.

And Dragons head coach Darren Edwards hopes the laid-back 20-year-old will be able to keep Collins' fellow countryman under wraps as the Dragons look for an eight home win of the campaign.

"I'm not being derogatory but does Toby know who Xavier Rush is?" added Edwards.

"He just loves playing, he's that kind of guy. I don't think he watches any rugby apart from his brother playing.

"I've been impressed with our entire back-row this season. That's why Joe Bearman leaving has never been a massive factor for me. We have some great back-rowers here.

"But the Blues are a powerful side and we have to play the same as in the win over the Ospreys."