The Christmas season kicks off with the highly anticipated derby fixture between Cardiff Blues and their west Wales visitors, Scarlets.
There is a good feeling in the air at the Arms Park despite their losses this season, with wing Alex Cuthbert having newly signed a three year deal with the Blues. Their recent performance against Montpellier, despite the negative result, showed signs of improvement for the side based in the capital, and is one they will hope to build on.
The Scarlets approach this after two narrow losses in Europe, with their performance in their last outing again being an improved one. There are key match ups across the board for this game, and how the likes of North and Cuthbert and Warburton and Shingler compete against each other will be riveting.
The stronger pack seems to be with that of the visitors, although the Blues have a very mobile and competitive backrow that could cause the Scarlets problems. Warburton and Navidi are both excellent at the breakdown and it will be a tough test for Turnbull and Shingler, both making their comebacks from injury.
The Scarlets have more experience with their half back pairing, and it will be intriguing to see if the much talked about Rhys Patchell can back up his assured performances at ten so far this season. Predictably the Welsh press has blown all performances out of proportion but it will be very interesting to see if Patchell can continue to develop well along the course of this season.
In the backline the visitors have the strength at centre, yet their distribution needs to improve to bring the best out of their back three, particularly with their two best try scorers North and Fenby on the wings.
The Blues have gone for Tovey at full back and with such an effective boot he could easily employ keep the Scarlets pinned back in their own half, which leads us on to the set piece.
Lineouts and scrums look fairly evenly matched with the Scarlets having the better in the latter. Looking at both lineups, if the Scarlets get any sort of solid platform then they should go on to win, although they will need to keep improving on recent performances.
Improved Blues displays recently will give them heart, and as ever in a derby it will be a hard fought match, yet it will take the Blues’ best performance of the season so far to come away with the win.
The Scarlets will have to be at the top of their game to see off a side desperate for a win at home, and any below par performances are likely to be punished.
With back play likely to favour the Scarlets, the Blues may have to take a risk with their forwards, yet they have the backrow fielded capable of winning that battle.
With a cloud of gloom hanging over Welsh rugby, some justified and some not, supports from both sides will be hoping for an exciting and spirited derby display, with neither side leaving anything on the pitch, in a match that will truly set the Christmas period alight.
Referee: Ian Davies, WRU
Cardiff Blues: 15 Jason Tovey 14 Alex Cuthbert 13 Gavin Evans 12 Dafydd Hewitt 11 Harry Robinson 10 Rhys Patchell 9 Lewis Jonesn8 Andries Preotrius (c) 7 Sam Warburton 6 Josh Navidi 5 James Down 4 Bradley Davies 3 Scott Andrews 2 Marc Breeze 1 Taufa’ao Filise
Replacements: 16 Rhys Williams 17 Sam Hobbs 18 Benoit Bourrust 19 Macauley Cook 20 Robin Copeland 21 Alex Walker 22 Ceri Sweeney 23 Owen Williams
Scarlets: 15 Liam Williams 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies (capt), 12 Scott Williams, 11 Andy Fenby, 10 Aled Thomas, 9 Tavis Knoyle, 1 Phil John, 2 Emyr Phillips, 3 Samson Lee, 4 George Earle, 5 Johan Snyman, 6 Josh Turnbull, 7 Aaron Shingler, 8 Kieran Murphy.
Replacements: 16 Matthew Rees, 17 Rhodri Jones, 18 Deacon Manu, 19 Sione Timani, 20 Johnathan Edwards, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Gareth Owen, 23 Gareth Maule.