Head to Head
Cardiff have faced Zebre five times since the Italian team joined the then RaboDirect Pro12 in 2012 with honours split marginally in favour of the Welshmen. Cardiff have three victories to two by their hosts. Games are usually close with only a score or two between the sides. This weekend’s fixture will be the fifth time an Irishman has taken the whistle in this fixture. Unfortunately for the Italians, Stadio Lanfranchi remains the easiest place to register an away win in the Pro14, and this season, the Scarlets inflicted Zebre’s 5th biggest home defeat ever at the stadium.
Michael Bradley – ex-Connacht scrum half – was appointed coach of Zebre in August last year. So far this season, his team has registered four victories, already only one behind their best ever showing in the league. Whilst the team’s progress has been gradual, there’s been a general improvement in their win-ratio as the season’s pass. Meanwhile, Danny Wilson’s team are looking for their third victory on the trot in the Pro14 – something of a novelty for the Welshmen.
Frank Murphy will referee his twelfth Pro14 game this weekend. A scrum half at Connacht at the same time as Michael Bradley, he is one of the biggest homers in the league with an 82% win ratio for the home side. He’s refereed Zebre twice before, in their narrow loss to Cardiff towards the end of last season (where he awarded three yellow cards to Cardiff players) and in their home win over the Dragons. Murphy is mid-table when it comes to the number of penalties awarded per game. Cardiff have a 50% win rate when he’s reffing, as do Zebre. Frank Murphy averages only 0.7 cards per game this season, which puts him at the lower end of the table.
Both Zebre and Cardiff have proved somewhat adept at failing to convert three tries in a game to a bonus point. This season, the Welshmen have done so on five occasions, whilst their hosts have done so four times. Both teams have registered only five bonus points in games played so far – only the Kings have a worse bonus points showing. If only Leinster have made more clean breaks than Cardiff this season, Zebre’s strength lies in the number of defenders beaten where they rank third in the league. Offloading skills are essential to keep defenders guessing, and again Zebre excel in this facet of play – only Glasgow rank above them. In terms of meters run, Cardiff’s total this season so far is 5021 – almost 1,000m fewer than Zebre’s. When it comes to tactical kicking, Zebre do so on a fewer number of occasions than do Cardiff by some margin.
Neither team has particularly impressive scrummaging stats this season. No team has lost more scrums against the head than Zebre, though Cardiff themselves are little better, ranking second in the number of lost scrums. However, if their scrummaging is suspect, the Italians lineout is worse. They are the only team in the Pro14 with a success rate of less than 80% at the lineout and this is sure to provide an Achilles heal for the home side this weekend.
Zebre major weakness continues to be in tackling. No team has made fewer tackles this season than Zebre (1372). And whilst the data for number of tackles missed is good – they are simply not attempting a sufficient number of tackles per game. At home, Zebre have attempted (on average) only 98 tackles per game – that’s 15 fewer than their nearest rivals. Away from home, only the Dragons and Treviso average more completed tackles per game than Cardiff. Unsurprisingly, Zebre’s 91% tackle completion rate in Galway was one of their best in recent seasons – a key factor in their victory.
Zebre have conceded only two yellow cards at home this season which places them near the top of the league for discipline. Cardiff – by way of contrast – have received seven cards away from home rank third in the league for number of penalties conceded. Both Cardiff and Zebre are averaging a similar number of penalties per card received this season.
This fixture rarely sees much daylight between the two teams and is always a tight contest when the game is played in Italy. Once again, there won’t be too much between the two sides. Cardiff’s superiority at set piece and in defence will be pitted against Zebre better attacking skills. But confidence will be high in the home team and with the referee’s influence, they will run out narrow victors by 23-18.