Defending Guinness PRO14 Champions Leinster Rugby start their title defence away at European Challenge Cup winners Cardiff Blues on Friday night.
Despite having beaten Leinster once since 2007, the home side will be encouraged by their recent opening-day form: their home defeat to Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh last season was their only matchday 1 loss since 2013.
What’s at stake?
In his first season at the helm, John Mulvihill’s Cardiff Blues will be looking to improve upon their inconsistent campaign last time out – they won 11 and lost 10 of their regular-season fixtures to finish fourth in Conference A, before missing out on the quarter-finals by nine points.
Two narrow defeats at the back end of last season, to nearest rivals Toyota Cheetahs and Ospreys cost them dear, and they’ll be looking to get on the right side of the tight games this time around.
Meanwhile, domestic and European champions Leinster will be eager to maintain their dominance in 2018/19 but should look to right their recent poor PRO14 away form – the Leinstermen were winless in their last four away Championship fixtures since beating Munster on St Stephen’s Day.
Team news (Cardiff Blues): Wales’ openside flanker Ellis Jenkins will lead out the Cardiff Blues on Friday, despite not featuring at all in pre-season. The 25-year-old captained his country during their summer tour of America and Argentina.
New signings Dmitri Arhip and Rory Thornton start in the pack for Cardiff Blues, having both joined from local rivals Ospreys.
The Blues will rely on old faces Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo to provide creativity in midfield.
Team news (Leinster): Ex-Australian international Joe Tomane has been handed a debut by Leo Cullen, but new club captain Johnny Sexton has been left at home.
Tomane will play at 12 alongside Rory O’Loughlin, who has now been capped by Ireland at rugby union and sevens level.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) August 30, 2018
Leinster are missing four internationals from their XV through injury, most notably Sean O’Brien, who has over 100 appearances for Leinster since making his debut in 2008.
Flanker Rhys Ruddock will captain the side in Sexton’s absence.
Talking points: Blues Head coach Mulvihill believes facing the current Guinness PRO14 champions is “a great way” for his side to begin the new season.
“You have to play the best and it will be a massive challenge but if you saw the way these boys finished last season, they love a challenge and that will certainly be coming at us on Friday night.
“We’ve had two solid pre-season games without being outstanding so it’s about us learning from those two experiences and making sure we get things right on Friday.
“It’s good to get some of our more experienced players back and the boys have trained really well this week.”
Leinster’s Rory O’Loughlin is looking forward to the action getting back underway after a tough pre-season:
“It [pre-season] does drag out a bit towards the end, and you kind of get fed up with the extra sessions and the extra fitness so it’s good to get back into games.
“The two pre-season games were a tough challenge – you could see we were rusty and the lads weren’t really on the same wavelength a lot.
“We’ve had a week to fix things up, so I think we’re in a good spot now to get into the season and everyone’s looking forward to it.”
Key battle – Jarrod Evans v Ross Byrne
In what are often tight, cagey affairs between the two sides in the Welsh capital, the match could swing on which fly-half finds his range the fastest.
Champions Collide in the Welsh capital on Friday!
— Cardiff Blues (@cardiff_blues) August 30, 2018
Cardiff Blues’ rising talent Evans was excellent when kicking for goal last season, succeeding with 48 of his 57 attempts.
Although Ross Byrne ranked 34th in the same department in 2017/18 – Evans was sixth – the 23 year-old Dubliner will hope for a few more chances than his opposite number on Friday night.
Key fact: Cardiff Blues have scored 13 points against Leinster in each of the last three meetings at Cardiff Arms Park – losing all three.
Did you know? The Welsh side have won their last three fixtures against Irish opposition.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan; Jason Harries, Willis Halaholo, Rey Lee-Lo, Owen Lane; Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams; Brad Thyer, Kristian Dacey, Dimitri Arhip; Seb Davies, Rory Thornton; Josh Turnbull, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Rhys Gill, Ethan Lewis, Scott Andrews, George Earle, Olly Robinson, Tomos Williams, Steve Shingler, Garyn Smith.
Leinster: Dave Kearney; Adam Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin, Joe Tomane, Barry Daly; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath; Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Michael Bent; Ross Molony, Scott Fardy; Josh Murphy, Rhys Ruddock, Caelan Doris.
Replacements: Bryan Byrne, Ed Byrne, Andrew Porter, Mick Kearney, Max Deegan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Noel Reid, Fergus McFadden.
TV: At Cardiff Arms Park, 7.35pm Live on Premier Sports, EIR Sport, TG4
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU, 167th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Ben Whitehouse, Gwyn Morris (both WRU)
Citing Commissioner: Paul Thomas (WRU)
TMO: Jon Mason (WRU)
Bryan Byrne scored with three minutes remaining as Leinster snuck a 33-32 victory over Cardiff Blues to open the defence of their Guinness PRO14 campaign with a win.
It was a remarkable turnaround for the champions, who trailed 29-14 at one point in the second half, but their young side fought back to set up a grandstand finish, with replacement hooker Byrne grabbing the try at the death.
Jason Harries and Rey Lee-Lo scored two tries apiece for the Blues, who had to settle for two bonus points in their first game under John Mulvihill.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) August 31, 2018
The home side had started the better at the BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park, with Jarrod Evans pushing them into an early lead with a penalty.
Evans then turned provider with a delightful delayed pass for Lee-Lo after a clever move off a lineout to send the centre in for the opening try.
They almost had a second on 15 minutes when Owen Lane thought he was over, but Adam Byrne had pulled him down and it required a double movement to get the ball over the line.
Ross Byrne got Leinster on the board midway through the half with a penalty, and they were on terms seven minutes later through hooker James Tracy.
He showed great strength and control to get the ball down when reaching for the line from a close-range drive, although Ross Byrne was off-target with the conversion to leave the scores level at 8-8.
Leinster hit the front for the first time not long after with a Fergus McFadden penalty, stepping in while Ross Byrne got treatment.
Just before half-time, the Blues went back in front, Harries showing all his pace to get over on the right. Evans converted from the touchline.
However a penalty conceded right on half-time allowed Ross Byrne to get Leinster back to within a point at the break.
The home side burst out of the blocks in the second period, with Harries completing his double after a fine backs move, again crossing on the right.
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) August 31, 2018
And they looked to be running away with it when Lee-Lo imitated him four minutes later, Evans converting both to make it 29-14.
Leinster needed a response, and got one through Bryan Byrne, although his namesake Ross was off-target with the conversion.
Jamison Gibson-Park’s introduction seemed to spark more life into Leinster, and he got in on the act 13 minutes from time to reduce the deficit to 29-26.
An Evans penalty seemed to have eased the Blues’ worries, as the fly-half pushed the lead back out to six.
But from there Leinster controlled possession and territory, and eventually the home defence creaked, with Bryan Byrne dotting down against the base of the post, leaving Ross Byrne with the simplest of conversions to seal victory.
30 Aug 2018
30 Aug 2018