Since the rebel season, Cardiff have faces Sale six times in the Welsh capital, each game going the way of the home team. Games tend to be fairly high scoring affairs, which should suit Cardiff’s search for an essential bonus point on Sunday. This fixture will be the first time for the teams to meet at the Arms Park in a competitive fixture in over 10 years.
With the sacking of Jim Mallinder in the week, Rob Baxter’s current tenure at Sale is now the third longest amongst current coaches in the Aviva Premiership. Only Mark McCall and Dai Young have been around longer. Sale are a very different team away from their home patch. This season, they’ve only won two games on the road – the sum total of away victories for the whole of last season. Both victories this season came against Worcester, at Sixways. Whilst Cardiff’s home record is also far from impressive – only four wins this season at the Arms Park, they can justifiably claim to present a different proposition at home.
Sunday’s game will be refereed by Dr Thomas Charabas, who at 37 is one of France‘s more experienced referees (by age). He’s refereed at CAP before when Calvisano were the visitors in January 2016. That game saw the home team run out convincing winners, but it’s unlikely we’ll see a similar result this weekend. This will be his eighth Challenge Cup game, and the first time he’s refereed Sale. Last season, he was averaging 23 penalties per game, and was one of the most officious referees in France. But this season, things seem to have changed. He’s now averaging only 17.2 penalties per game and has a remarkable record of only issuing three yellow cards in the six Top 14 games he’s ref’d this season. This makes puts him firmly at the bottom of the yellow card table. Furthermore, his 66% home win record puts him below the Top14 average of 74% for home victories this season.
Cardiff’s anemic performance last week in Manchester was defined by desperately poor stats. They managed only two offloads during the game (one each from Seb Davies and Rey Lee-Lo) – one of their poorest performance in the last three seasons (if not longer). Similarly, the team only made two breaks during the game (one each from Aled Summerhill and Matthew Morgan) – again, their worst this season. Only against Glasgow, did the team beat fewer defenders this season, and their meters run was also one of the lowest recorded. It makes for grim reading. Ironically, despite the margin of victory, Sale’s figures are also far impressive, but their seven offloads stands out as the biggest difference in attack between the two sides.
Although Cardiff secured 100% of their ball from the scrum last week, so did the home side. Meanwhile, at the lineout, Sale recorded a 100% success rate, whilst the visitors only managed 89%. Only the Scarlets this season have kicked more to touch when facing Cardiff, and Sale’s 34 kicks in the game was their second highest kick count of the season. So far this season, Gethin Jenkins has only played 57 minutes of rugby, so without doubt he will be looking to lead from the front in the tight and the return of a rested Josh Navidi will also boost the pack.
Danny Wilson will be pleased with Cardiff’s 94% tackle completion rate last week and also with the number of turnovers the team won – 16 is their 4th best figures for the season. The greatest problem was their use of the ball. With almost an entire team out with injury, Wilson’s options are limited, but he’s chose to make only two changes to the back line, with Tomos Williams coming in at scrum half for Lloyd Williams and Willis Halohalo replacing Rey Lee-Lo in the centre. Both “rested” players feature on the bench. In the pack, five changes see a major rejigging of resource. Josh Turnbull slips to the bench for a well-earned rest – he’s spent more time on the pitch (801 minutes) than any other player in the squad this season.
Sale are the most carded team in the Aviva Premiership so far this season, and so despite Thomas Charabas’ leniency expect at least one player to take a 10 minute rest. This is nothing new, they were also the most carded team last season as well. This season in the Pro14, Cardiff are conceding on average 10.7 penalties per game, with Sale at 10.2 penalties per game in the Aviva Premiership.
Expect a much improved performance from Cardiff this week with the home team set for a 29-14 victory. However, once more, they will fail to secure a bonus point which could prove costly in their bid to secure a home quarter final.