The Guinness PRO14 Conference A play-off race hots up on Saturday when in-form Connacht head to Cardiff Blues.
The Blues – fifth in the standings – have won their last two clashes against Connacht – currently fourth – and can close the gap this weekend with a victory.
What’s at stake? Defending champions Leinster downed the Blues at the Arms Park on the opening day of the season but since then the Welsh region are unbeaten at their home fortress.
They put that record on the line this Saturday when the impressive Connacht come to town looking to steal a march on their Conference A rivals in the battle for a top-three finish while the victory will also take a huge leap towards European qualification as well.
Team news (Cardiff Blues): Kristian Dacey returns to captain the side, recovering from a shoulder injury, and is one of eight changes made following last week’s bonus-point win over Lyon in the Champions Cup.
Shane Lewis-Hughes, who featured in recent European encounters against Glasgow Warriors and Lyon, makes his first start in the Guinness PRO14, alongside Olly Robinson and Nick Williams in the back row.
Robinson steps into the No.7 jersey, replacing Josh Navidi who is away on international duty, while Brad Thyer and George Earle are also introduced to the pack.
Steven Shingler and Lloyd Williams both return to form the half back partnership, with Matthew Morgan the other change amongst the backline.
James Botham is named on the bench and is in-line for his Cardiff Blues debut
Team news (Connacht): Head Coach Andy Friend has given 21-year-old Sligo man Cillian Gallagher his first start of the season as one of ten changes to the Connacht side that played Bordeaux last weekend.
Best of luck to Sligo’s Cillian Gallagher who makes his first start of the season tomorrow 💪 pic.twitter.com/SHaFrdfCbX
— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) January 25, 2019
In the front row, Denis Buckley is named at loosehead alongside Finlay Bealham at tighthead and hooker Dave Heffernan, who signed a contract extension this week. Gallagher’s inclusion in the second row sees him form a partnership with James Cannon, while in the back row, captain Jarrad Butler comes back into the side at No.8 alongside flankers Eoin McKeon and Colby Fainga’a.
The half-back pairing sees James Mitchell coming in to partner David Horwitz who is retained at out-half.
The back three sees Tiernan O’Halloran starting again at full-back with Matt Healy and Cian Kelleher on the wings. In the midfield, on-loan centre Tom Daly starts his second game of the season alongside Kyle Godwin.
Talking points: Cardiff Blues head coach John Mulvihill has emphasised the importance of Saturday’s clash and has been encouraged by his side’s preparations.
“We came through the Lyon game really well, and we’ve got a few boys back this week, including Kristian Dacey who will captain the side,” said Mulvihill.
“He leads by example, without saying too much, and is one of our big ball carriers, so we hope he can continue with the good form he’s shown this season.
— Cardiff Blues (@cardiff_blues) January 24, 2019
“This week’s been one of the best we’ve had in terms of preparation over the last few weeks, in terms of having the full week to train.
“This our first chance to have a real crack at Connacht, and if we win this week it will really put us in-touch with third place. But if we lose, we’ll be facing an eight to ten-point turnaround for us.
“They will be missing a few key players to international call-ups, as will we, but our depth is good in those areas and we’ll be able to put out a good team”
With Connacht sitting five points ahead of Cardiff in Conference A of the Guinness PRO14, head coach Andy Friend says that this is a hugely important fixture in Connacht’s season:
“We have won eight of our last ten games so we go into the game with confidence but we know what a tough team Cardiff are to play, especially when they are at home,” he said.
“These inter-conference games have a huge bearing on the overall standings in the PRO14 so we are fully aware of the importance of the fixture.
“We have made a few changes to our match day squad with players away on international duty and a few injuries to contend with, but we have picked a team that we have full confidence in to go to Cardiff and get a result.”
Key battle: Olly Robinson v Colby Fainga’a
The battle of the two opensides should make for compelling viewing. No-one in the league has more turnovers this year than Robinson who is a limpet at the breakdown.
But the Engllishman will have his work cut out against Fainga’a – the new arrival from Melbourne Rebels has been a revelation this season in the back row.
His form over the festive period was stunning and the key to Connacht’s impressive recent form.
Key stat: Andy Friend’s in-form Irish province have lost just twice in their last ten games in all competitions.
Did you know? Connacht are notoriously poor travellers to Wales. They have lost on their last five trips there – in fact their only win in their last nine came in February 2017 at Cardiff Arms Park.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan; Owen Lane, Harri Millard, Rey Lee-Lo, Aled Summerhill; Steven Shingler, Lloyd Williams; Brad Thyer, Kristian Dacey (c), Dmitri Arhip, George Earle, Rory Thornton, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams
Replacements: Liam Belcher, Rhys Carré, Scott Andrews, Macauley Cook, James Botham, Lewis Jones, Dan Fish, Willis Halaholo
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Cian Kelleher, Kyle Godwin, Tom Daly, Matt Healy, David Horwitz, James Mitchell, Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, James Cannon, Cillian Gallagher, Eoin McKeon, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler
Replacements: Tom McCartney, Matthew Burke, Dominic Robertson McCoy, Joe Maksymiw, Paul Boyle, Angus Lloyd, Conor Fitzgerald, Stephen Fitzgerald
At Cardiff Arms Park, 5.15pm.
TV: Live on eir Sport, Premier Sports, TG4
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU, 29th competition game) Assistant Referees: Adam Jones (WRU), Lloyd Linton (SRU) TMO: Ian Davies (WRU) Citing Commissioner: Paul Thomas (WRU)
Owen Lane produced a spectacular acrobatic try to help Cardiff Blues to an 8-7 win over Connacht Rugby despite being down to 13 men at the time.
Awful conditions for most of the game at Cardiff Arms Park made it difficult for both of the Guinness PRO14 sides and Connacht looked like they might stage a last-minute comeback but the Blues held on.
The result brings John Mulvihill’s team right back in to contention for a play-off place after they started the afternoon five points behind their match day rivals in Conference A and will finish it just two points behind.
The Blues took the lead after Eoin McKeon was penalised at the breakdown and Steven Shingler stroked a 38-metre penalty through the posts with ten minutes on the clock.
The Blues then had prop Brad Thyer sin-binned for illegally pulling down a maul just outside his own try-line but Connacht made a hash of the resulting scrum.
The discipline seemed to have disappeared altogether when No.8 Nick Williams was also sin-binned for a late tackle on prop Finlay Bealham leaving the Blues with 13 men on the field for the next five minutes.
Just as it looked like Connacht were growing into the game the Blues delivered a sucker-punch through Lane who continued his impressive rise through the ranks to get his whole body airborne as the tackle came in from Tiernan O’Halloran and placed the ball perfectly in the corner.
The TMO was called into action much to displeasure of fans inside Cardiff Arms Park but there was no taking away from Lane’s brilliant acrobatics and the Blues went in at half-time with an 8-0 lead.
The Blues emerged a more disciplined side in the second-half and kept Connacht at bay while the rain and the wind subsided for the last ten minutes of rugby.
And it was the try scorer Lane who carried the ball over this own try line to hand Connacht a lifeline in the form of a five-metre scrum which the Irishmen grabbed with both hands scoring through Paul Boyle and Conor Fitzgerald adding the extra two from the conversion.
With five minutes left to turn the tie on its head Connacht threw everything they had at Mulvihill’s side but it wasn’t enough and after spilling the ball forwards the final whistle called a halt to proceedings.