Friday, August 31, 2018

Preview - Cardiff Blues v Leinster

European football governing body UEFA insist on staging a ridiculously over-hyped exhibition match every season called the "Super Cup" which features the previous season's winners of the Champions and Europa Leagues.  I'm sure the event generates revenue which is why they keep having them, but it's about as relevant to the sport as a Sunday morning kickabout down the local park.

Thankfully this is one thing that the rugby blazers haven't felt the need to mimic from their roundy ball counterparts, but if they did, this year's version would involve the two teams going head-to-head at Cardiff Arms Park.  And it is a relevant fixture in many more ways than just an opener to the 2018/19 campaign.

Leinster dominated the rugby scene so much last season that many outside the province are wondering, or possibly more to the point terrified, that it could continue for a number of years in a similar vein to that enjoyed by teams like the All Blacks and Crusaders.

So whether it's by design or not, from an overall Guinness Pro 14 perspective, it's certainly no harm for Leinster to be opening their title defence with two difficult assignments, and having both away to Welsh regions is challenging enough without the fact that both the Blues and Scarlets have recently earned some rare silverware for the regions.

Obviously from our point of view, we'll be keen to make a statement that we have absolutely no intention of relinquishing either title easily.  And when it comes to making a statement, our opening day selection is jam-packed with players all wishing to make their own.

Firstly there's our new kid on the block, though he's hardly a kid in that he's the very experienced Joe Tomane.  Nobody could hope to completely 'replace' Isa and all he did for us over the years, but in Joe we have a player who will be well aware of his own importance to the squad and that there will be no time for settling in...he'll need to hit the ground running and I saw enough in the preseason friendly at Donnybrook that he can do just that.

Inside him at outhalf is Ross Byrne...the shadow of Joey C is now gone from him and he won't get a much better opportunity than tonight to show he's ready to step up.  And it certainly won't hurt him to have Luke McGrath at scrum half...in this week's Harpin Points I made a case for him to be Ireland's November nine with Murray injured.

In fact pretty much all our backline have points to prove.  You wouldn't think you'd need to say that about last season's Pro14 leading try scorer but it's still very possible that a lot of Welsh rugby fans think Barry Daly is the name of a local newspaper so hopefully more of them will know what he can do after tonight.  Meanwhile Adam Byrne and Rory O'Loughlin, have fallen back a little bit at the province, mostly due to injuries and other youngsters stepping up, so they'll be keen to have a run of appearances to set that straight.

As for Dave Kearney, I thought he looked lively against Newcastle and having had a desperate run of bad luck on the injury front, fingers crossed he can stay fit long enough to get Joe Schmidt's attention in time for the autumn tests.

When it comes to the pack, after several appearances as captain going back a number of years, Rhys Ruddock finally has a nailed down an official leadership role at the province and he seems to be the type of character who will relish the opportunity.

Ross Molony is another one who could do with a standout performance or three in the first month of the season.  Tonight he lines out alongside Scott Fardy which could mean we'll be planning to go after the Blues lineouts - considering this time last season I was more worried about us winning our own that shows how far we have come since then!!!

Then at the back of the scrum we have Caelan Doris, who was Under 20s captain at the World Championship and despite Ireland's disappointing results he put in some amazing personal displays.  At this stage last year, although Jamie Heaslip was injured we all assumed be'd be our starting 8 for Europe...now with him gone, there''s a massive space to be filled so it will be interesting to see who does.

For now I'm thinking it's a straight fight between Jack Conan and Sean O'Brien once he returns to fitness, but in Doris and Max Deegan, who played almost like a veteran at times last season, we certainly have some great talent coming through.

So that's a run over many of the individuals on show tonight, though as always I'll be keen to see how they knit together, particularly the backline with Dr Phil now in charge.  Ciaran Frawley has been extremely unlucky to miss out on opening night but his injury proves how clever it was to give Noel Reid a start in Montauban as he'll be our backup in Cardiff.

As for the Blues, well I didn't get to see much of them last season but one thing we can be sure of is that confidence will be high with a home crowd and some silverware to show them.  The bookies have Leinster winning by 3...I agree it will be tight but I'm hoping we'll be able to pull away a bit more in the closing stages so I'm going to say we'll finish on top by 5-7 points.  We'll have to play out of our skins to earn that though.

One final note on the referees...as much as I'm happy when Nigel Owens is holding the whistle and I'd never dream of accusing him of bias, I still think it's a shame a league comprising five nations can't find referees from neutral nations for every fixture.

Anyway...that's a small point and hopefully one I won't need to drag up when it comes to my writeup on Monday.  Enjoy the match whereever you are...and here's to another season of success for Leinster rugby!!!  JLP

PS Best of luck to new coach Ben Armstrong, new skipper Sene Naoupu, and the Leinster Women who open their interprovincial campaign tonight in Stradbrook...shame it has to overlap with the match in Cardiff, but I'm assuming that it couldn't be helped.

#COYB(and G!)IB

Cardiff Blues team to face Leinster: M Morgan; J Harries, W Halaholo, R Lee-Lo, O Lane; J Evans, L Williams; B Thyer, K Dacey, D Arhip, S Davies, R Thornton, J Turnbull, E Jenkins, N Williams.

Replacements: R Gill, E Lewis, S Andrews, G Earle, O Robinson, T Williams, S Shingler, G Smith.

Guinness Pro14 2018/19 Round 1
Friday, August 31, 2018
KO 7:35pm
Cardiff Arms Park

Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)
AR1: Ben Whitehouse (WRU).
AR2: Gwyn Morris (WRU)
TMO: Jon Mason (WRU)

Live on Premier Sports 1, eir sport 1 & 2, TG4.
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