Cardiff Blues head coach Danny Wilson is expecting a tough test from Zebre on Sunday despite the Italian outfit travelling to Wales without a handful of big names.
Zebre are without nine Italian internationals this weekend – all selected in Jacques Brunel’s 31-man Rugby World Cup squad – for their trip to BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park.
The Blues are without eight absentees of their own – including British & Irish Lions trio Sam Warburton, Alex Cuthbert and Gethin Jenkins – but Wilson can still call on a strong side.
Tom James – the region’s record try-scorer – returns from a two-year spell with Exeter Chiefs to line up on the left wing, while Rhys Patchell takes the reins at fly-half.
Academy graduate Ethan Lewis will make his GUINNESS PRO12 debut at hooker, with Matthew Rees ruled out of the game after having his appendix removed, and tighthead prop Taufa'ao Filise makes his 197th appearance.
“The first game of any campaign is always an exciting time and we've been pleased with the way the squad has prepared this week and throughout pre-season,” said Wilson.
“Zebre will be keen to make a winning start and have a number of high profile and talented players.
“They have threats throughout, but it's vital we concentrate on ourselves. We need to defend against what they bring and just as importantly impart our own game on the opposition.”
Cardiff Blues have won on the opening weekend in four of the past five seasons and finished of their 2014/15 campaign with a 29-5 home win over Zebre to end a four-game losing streak.
The Blues have won their last three games at BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park in the GUINNESS PRO12, whilst the only time they have lost at home to an Italian side was against Zebre in September 2013.
Zebre have lost their last six GUINNESS PRO12 encounters since beating Newport Gwent Dragons in March and have won only twice away from home in the history of the franchise – the other against Brive in Europe last season.
The two sides have met on six previous occasions with the Blues having the edge by four wins to two.
The Zebre side that will chase a third win over their hosts is led by second row George Biagi, who packs down behind new signing loosehead Bruno Postiglioni.
Australian international Luke Burges links up with teenager Maicol Azzolini in the half-backs, while Italian international Michele Visentin is on the left wing and new signing Kayle Van Zyl starts at full-back.
Team manager Andrea de Rossi said: “I think the team that will play in Cardiff is the best possible and reflects the choices made by the technical programming; both collective and individual for the players currently available.
“After Sunday's game Zebre will stay in Wales during the next week in our headquarters in Newport.
“In addition to better prepare for another tough match against the Dragons, these days of retreat will also be useful to build further the new group that will face this first window of the tournament concurrent with the World Cup.”
At BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park, 2:30pm.
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU, competition debut)
Assistant Referees: Gwyn Morris, Ben Whitehouse (both WRU)
Citing Commissioner: Gwyn Bowden (WRU)
TMO: Jon Mason (WRU)
Live on S4C
Rhys Patchell grabbed a nine-minute hat-trick – three of 11 tries – as Cardiff Blues ensured they ended round one sitting pretty at the top of the GUINNESS PRO12 table thanks to a 61-13 victory over Zebre.
Hosts Cardiff had wrapped up their bonus point before half-time as Josh Navidi went over twice with the returning Tom James and Aled Summerhill grabbing one apiece.
All Zebre had to show for their efforts in the first half were two Maicol Azzolini penalties, but Ulrich Beyers did cross the whitewash after the break.
However, Cardiff added a further seven tries through Patchell’s quick-fire treble, a hat-trick for Josh Turnbull and Summerhill’s second of the game to get their campaign off to a flying start.
After a tense opening ten minutes in which both sides threatened, Zebre were on the scoreboard first as Azzolini slotted a penalty.
The biggest cheer in the early exchanges from the home fans came when the returning Tom James got his hands on the ball early on, although there was little else to get them excited as Patchell sent a penalty attempt past the right upright.
And this miss might have played a part in Patchell opting to kick for the corner when twice he had the chance to once again go for the posts.
But whatever the reasoning it turned out to be the right option as after a neat line out Navidi peeled off the back to give Cardiff the lead.
The conversion though was missed and Zebre once again had their noses in front as Azzolini made no mistake from the tee on 25 minutes.
Zebre then thought they had moved further ahead only for an effort to be ruled out by the Television Match Official.
And things went from bad to worse for the Italian side as soon after a sublime pass from Jarrad Hoeta sent James over for a try on his return to Cardiff Blues.
But the home side weren’t finished there as a break from Navidi saw Tavis Knoyle take the ball on before it was worked wide for Summerhill to finish.
Cardiff then lost James to injury just before half-time but it did little to disrupt them as the hosts secured the bonus point before the interval with Navidi grabbing his second try of the game with Zebre No.8 Andries Van Schalkwyk in the sinbin.
And it was a similar story after the break as Patchell got in on the act early in the second-half, dusting himself off to convert his own score.
Dan Fish thought he had his name on the scoresheet moments later but he was just short of the whitewash, but there was no mistaking when Patchell added his second of the game after a Fish breakaway.
Patchell missed the conversion this time but he was celebrating moments later when he wrapped up a nine-minute hat-trick as he was once again sent clear by Fish.
The home side rung the changes and Zebre made the most of an opportunity as Beyers went over just before the hour mark, but Cardiff hit straight back with Summerhill dotting down, Gareth Davies adding the extras.
That was the home side’s eighth try of the game but Zebre were not giving up and Fish ad to be alert to put in a try-saving tackle on Luke Burgess.
But normal service was resumed as Turnbull ran the length of the field to touch down, with Fish converting.
Turnbull went on to bring up a treble of his own as the Blues got their season off to the perfect start.