CARDIFF Blues will start Alex Cuthbert, Gareth Anscombe and Kristian Dacey against Connacht tonight, after the players were released by the Welsh camp.
They make up three of the six changes to the side from last week’s win against Edinburgh, as Josh Navidi comes in at at number eight, Taufa’ao Filise at tight-head and second-rower Lou Reed make up a new look forward pack. The changes mean Manoa Vosawai, Adam Jones, Filo Paulo and Tom Isaacs all drop to the bench, while Richard Smith loses out entirely to make room for Cuthbert. Sunday’s stand-off Rhys Patchell will move to full-back to make room for Anscombe, in the only other change.
Cuthbert will have a point to prove after his axing from the Wales squad, following a three-year international run, and the Lions winger has told Blues coaches he is ready to prove his quality on the pitch and show the welsh camp what they are missing. The blues will be hopeful Cuthbert can help them continue their perfect response to a difficult period after a desperately needed home win on Sunday.
They ran four tries past Edinburgh in the first game since the departure of director of rugby Mark Hammett. But temporary coaches Paul John and Dale McIntosh will want improvement against a Connacht side boosted by the return of full-back Mils Muliaina from injury. Muliaina’s return means Tiernan O’Halloran moves to the wing, they also bring two new faces to their pack — George Naoupu at number-eight and Mick Kearney at lock.
Connacht will almost certainly offer a sterner test than Edinburgh — they are sixth in the Pro12 table, within touching distance of qualification for the European Rugby Champion’s Cup. The Irish side are fresh from thumping Treviso 53-5 — a team who thrashed the blues on a recent trip to Italy. The win was Connacht’s second win on the spin,and with the return of on-field leader Muliaina they will come to Cardiff full of confidence.
And although John and McIntosh will have been very pleased with Sunday’s win, the Blues still conceded two tries — showing they have not plugged all the holes in the team’s shaky defence this season. Despite scoring their first try from an attacking lineout, as the game wore on, Edinburgh began to dominate the set piece. This has been a problem area for much of the season and must get better.
The win will still have lifted spirits at the Arms Park, after a dismal season under Hammett that does not reflect the talent the Blues have at their disposal. Many at the start of the season expected them to be the highest ranked Welsh region, but they are the lowest in the Pro12.
News yesterday from McIntosh, saying the club wanted the return of Jamie Roberts, will also help raise the mood. The centre is expected to be released by Racing Metro at the end of the season. Roberts has been linked with an Arms Park return on a WRU duel contract following a potential release. Speculation has also linked him to English sides, including Harlequins and Saracens, but McIntosh will hope he can be tempt the Welsh international into returning home. He would add to the international talent pool already available and could help for a stronger season in 2015/16. But for now the Blues must focus on getting the basics right in defence and at the set piece — if they don’t, a strong Connacht side will punish them.