WITH no prospect of progressing from pool three into the knock-out stages of this season’s Champions Cup, Cardiff Blues head coach John Mulvhill has made 12 changes to his starting XV for Sunday’s clash against Glasgow Warriors, with a number of leading players being given a week off.
But rather than be encouraged by the absence from the match-day squad of big-hitters such as Gareth Anscombe, Rey Lee-Lo, Kristian Daecy and Olly Robinson, Warriors head coach Dave Rennie believes that the visitors could be more dangerous as consequence.
“To be honest, it makes me more nervous,” he admitted. “What we know is that we can’t underestimate anyone. Our focus has pretty much been on us because we weren’t sure what they would bring. We just need to be good both sides of the ball. If we bring the right level of physicality accuracy, can hang onto the ball and create turnovers through line speed in defence then hopefully we can hurt them from there. But obviously there is a handful of boys that we don’t know much about.”
The Blues have given 12-times capped Wales winger Tom James a first competitive outing in over a year after an extended break due to depression, while the experienced hooker Matthew Rees returnsfrom injury tocaptain the side in his first appearance of the season and Shane Lewis-Hughes is handed his senior, competitive debut in the back-row.
Rennie has a made a few changes of his own. Stuart Hogg,Tommy Seymour and DTH van der Merwe being brought in after a week’s rest to form a potent back-three, plus Oli Kebble, Callum Gibbins and Matt Fagerson returning to the pack.
There are, however, a number of significant absentees – some due to injuries and others due to form.
Perhaps the most notable alteration to the starting team is Adam Hastings dropping to the bench after a tough run of games during which time a lack of accuracy and judgement when playing on the gain-line cost him and his team dearly against both Edinburgh in the first round of the 1872 Cup and against Benetton last week.
With Peter Horne out with a knee injury, Brandon Thomson has been handed the number 10 jersey and charged with reproducing the form he exhibited in his last start for the club, when he scored 24 points and pulled the strings expertly as 14-man Warriors achieved a victory against the odds over Scarlets at the start of December. This will be only his seventh start for the club.
“We were going to play Pete at 10 but his knee was not any good when we came in on Tuesday, so we made the decision to withdraw him,” explained Rennie. “He may be a couple of weeks away.”
“It is a big game, but we have a lot of confidence in Brandon. I thought he was excellent against Scarlets and very strong against Ospreys when he started and played 80 minutes. He has been training with us for a year and a half and he is clear about what we’re trying to do. It’s exciting for him.”
Rennie was at pains to stress that he has not lost faith in Hastings.
“I have no qualms about bringing Adam on, no qualms at all,” he insisted. “He has played really well – better than I thought he would – in the first few months of the year. There are only little parts of his game that have hurt him with regard to decision-making, but he is aware of that and has been working very hard on that the last couple of weeks.
“But we have not seen those shifts under pressure on a Saturday yet so for that reason we will give Brandon – who has been training and playing really well – a go.
“I don’t think it’s mental [with Hastings],” he added. “Some of it is a bit of skill-set stuff. At times he is probably trying to do too much on his own. It’s about getting a bit of balance to his game. He’s a pretty confident kicker of a ball and he probably needs to give us more field position at times. He knows what he’s not doing well enough and he’s good enough to make shifts, but this weekend it’s going to be off the bench.
Thomson tends to sit a bit deeper and play the percentages more cautiously than Hastings, but Rennie says that his selection does not represent a change in the team’s mind-set.
The perfect 10
“We have not got a result the last few weeks, but we have created a lot of opportunities,” he said. “We go through every game with a fine-tooth comb and there were areas where we were really sharp in the first part of the year which we have not been as sharp recently. We will keep trying to do what we do but better this weekend.”
Meanwhile, Scotland centre Huw Jones doesn’t even make the match-day squad.
“He has missed out on selection,” confirmed Rennie. “He has had a rib injury the last two or three weeks but [was available this week]. There is a lot of competition for a centre spot here. Huw has played reasonably well for us this year but we think Nick Grigg has played better.”
The power of the pack
Another notable absentee is second-row Jonny Gray, who is out with a shoulder injury, meaning Scott Cummings and Rob Harley (who is making 200th appearance for the club) start in the engine-room.
“He [Gray] did not play last week and we thought he would be right but it is still a bit niggly,” explained Rennie. “He is not far off. We only made the decision to withdraw him this morning and he should be okay for next week.”
Tight-head Siua Halanukonuka is also out with a calf injury, although given Glasgow’s recent scrum woes, Rennie will not be overly concerned about having to turn to the highly experienced Petrus du Plessis as cover for D’Arcy Rae at tight-head prop.
“Obviously, Zander Fagerson has been injured and we have a couple of hookers out, but we’re not too worried about the size of that pack,” he insisted. “We have to scrummage well and we know that. We have a really good line-out and good athletes around the park. The key is getting on the ball and building some pressure and having the patience to make the most of that.
“Defensively we need to be better than we were last week. We’ve generally defended pretty well this season, but we lost all the collisions and lost the battle of body height – with and without the ball – last week. We’ve done a lot of work on that and expect to be better this weekend.”
Although Warriors cannot win Pool 3 in this round of games, they will qualify as one of the three best runners-up provided they win on Sunday and results in Pools 2 and 5 go their way.
Glasgow Warriors (versus Cardiff Blues at Scotstoun Stadium, Sunday at 3.15pm, live on BT Sport): Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Nick Grigg, Sam Johnson, DTH van der Merwe; Brandon Thomson, Ali Price; Oli Kebble, Grant Stewart, D’Arcy Rae, Rob Harley, Scott Cummings, Ryan Wilson©, Callum Gibbins©, Matt Fagerson. Substitutes: Kevin Bryce, Alex Allan, Petrus du Plessis, Tim Swinson, Chris Fusaro, George Horne, Adam Hastings, Lee Jones.
Cardiff Blues: Dan Fish; Owen Lane, Harri Millard, Willis Halaholo, Tom James; Steven Shingler, Lloyd Williams; Brad Thyer, Matthew Rees©, Dillon Lewis, George Earle, Rory Thornton, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Josh Navidi, Seb Davies. Substitutes: Ethan Lewis, Rhys Carre, Scott Andrews, Macauley Cook, Nick Williams, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Aled Summerhill.
Referee: JP Doyle (England)