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Crystal ball and navel gazing

Cardiff Blues vs Ospreys

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Head to Head

Whilst the Ospreys have an impressive lead over Cardiff in head to head fixtures over the years (the team from Swansea has won 11 out of the 18 fixtures played), these two teams have only met in a top tier game at Cardiff Arms Park once since 2008. Of those eleven games, eight have been in the various incarnations of the Pro14, with Nigel Owens refereeing six. Last season’s thumping of the “visitors” was their first defeat in Cardiff since New Years Day in 2010. Once more, these two sides will face each other in the last league game of the season, so often a dead rubber, but even more so this season. Having alienated season ticket holders with their bizarre stance on seating allocation, the WRU continue to schedule this fixture at a non-sensical time of the season when a more meaningful clash could provide a serious commercial boost to both clubs. The Ospreys disastrous season has seen a drop of over 30,000 in the Pro14 gate (a fall over almost 30%). In only two fixtures did the attendance increase on last season’s (Connacht and Zebre). The just under 70,000 who have attended home fixtures this season is the worst cumulative crowd figure since the 2004-5 season. On the back of the disaster in Rodney Parade, the plight of the Ospreys only underlines that as the influence of the WRU in the running of pro-rugby teams increases, Welsh rugby’s plight is worsening. And let’s not also forget that Cardiff’s gates have also been poor this season in the Pro14. They are down 7,ooo on last season (excluding the final fixture) – and gates at five of their home fixtures are less than last season.

The Coaches

Under Gatland’s directions, no fewer than nine of the Ospreys squad have dual contracts with the WRU, which represents a subsidy of around £1m to their playing squad (though these figures are extremely difficult to track down and hence remain an estimate). This makes the Ospreys the most subsidised team in Wales – apart from the Dragons, of course – but nevertheless (or maybe because of this) they have suffered one of their worst ever seasons. Having taken over from Steve Tandy in January, Ulsterman Allen Clarke has been in charge at Swansea for nine games. So far, he has yet to lead his team to an away victory. In selecting a largely second string outfit, Danny Wilson has done his best to break this run of defeats in what is his penultimate game in charge.

The Referee

Thirty six year old Frank Murphy is an ex-Munster and Connacht scrum half who is in his second season as a professional referee. This season, he’s refereed Cardiff on four occasions, with only a narrow defeat to Glasgow ending in victory for Cardiff. He’s also ref’d the Ospreys twice – once for their home victory over Glasgow, and once in their heavy defeat in Bloemfontein. Murphy averages 21 penalties per game, which puts him hear the top of the table. However, when it comes to issuing cards, he’s more mid-table with only 0.8 per game. If this game had been played at the Arms Park, Cardiff would have enjoyed the biggest homer in the league, with 79% of games refereed by Murphy resulting in home wins.

Attack

Attack rankings for the Ospreys this season offer miserable reading.  Only Munster and the Scarlets have made fewer breaks per game, and their offloading game is not much better. When it comes to meters run with ball in hand, only one of the worst team ever to feature in a Celtic Rugby competition – the Kings – have carried the ball less. Even the Dragons have a higher figure.  No small wonder that the Ospreys have managed only 42 tries this season (as opposed to 73 last season). This is the fewest number of tries they’ve scored since 2008-9 when they participated in a ten-team competition. The Ospreys are the most inefficient team in the competition for turning possession into points – averaging a point every 2.32 minutes …. it takes the team more than one minute longer to score a point than it does the Cheetahs. Could this be linked to the drop in crowds?

Set Piece

Both teams have similar records at scrum time this season,  and both a equally proficient at the lineout. If this game was to be played by the two strongest possible teams at the respective clubs, we could they would cancel each other out at the set piece.

Defence

Throughout this season, despite their ineffective attack and general lack of creativity, the Ospreys tackle stats have been mighty impressive. In defeat to Ulster in the last round and in victory over Connacht, they topped that round’s rankings on number of completed tackles. In that defeat in Belfast, the Ospreys managed to secure only 20% of territory – the second lowest percentage of any team since 5th September 2014 in the Pro14. Cardiff also have impressive tackle stats – averaging  87% completion rate across all competitive fixtures this season. But they still lag behind the Ospreys’ highly impressive 89%. Despite their individual efforts, overall so far this season, collectively the Ospreys have conceded 91 tries – by some distance their worst ever season. This represents almost twice the number of tries they conceded last season. As individuals they maybe performing well, but collectively ….?

Discipline

The Ospreys are a mid-table team when it comes to yellow cards conceded. Cardiff – meanwhile – have conceded 13 cards, five more than their Swansea-based opponents, and are carded once every 16 penalties, as opposed to the Ospreys 22. And it’s not only the number of cards that separates the two teams. Cardiff concede 10.7 penalties per game on average, whereas the Ospreys are conceding only 8.8. This translates to 38 fewer penalties over the Pro14 season as whole.

Prediction

The Ospreys are the most successful Welsh team in Celtic Rugby since 2003 and the third most successful overall. Between the 2012-13 season and 2015-16 season, they were Welsh Conference Table champions. But since then, despite the squad subsidy and influence from Gatland, results have worsened. It is the Scarlets who now reign supreme and look set to make a clean sweep of local victories – only the second team to do this in since the modern era began in 2003 (the Ospreys achieved this feat in 2012-13 and 2013-14). Sadly, thanks to poor scheduling, this fixture has once more been devalued and with a far more important game next week, Danny Wilson has chosen a second string. In contrast, Clarke’s selection is close to his strongest. Given the history of this fixture and the relative strengths of the two starting XVs, this should be an easy victory for the Ospreys. However, there have shown major collective weaknesses this season and Cardiff’s second choice will feel they have a chance to win this one.

Cardiff Blues vs Section Paloise

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Head to Head

Cardiff’s only previous game against Pau in Wales was on 21st October 2016, when the home side ran out 27-12 winners in front of a meagre crowd of less than 7,000. A three tries to two victory was built on a sound defensive performance in a game dominated by the set piece. The return fixture in the Pyrenes was a one point game, with a penalty from Steve Shingler snatching victory in the last minute for Cardiff. That season, Pau lost every one of their Challenge Cup games, but this season has been somewhat different. They were unbeaten in the Pool games and won both home and away games against finalists Gloucester. At home, this season they’ve lost only three games – against Montpellier and Stade Francais and then last week, a shock defeat to Agen who are some way below them in the Top 14 table. Away from home, they have seen less success which made their victory in Kingsholm all the more impressive. Their biggest win this season was the revenge game in Paris where Stade were stuffed 5-40. For that game, Pau fielded six Kiwis in their starting squad.

The Coaches

Kiwi-born Simon Mannix was appointed coach of Pau in the summer of 2014. Capped once at outside half for the All Blacks, he played his rugby for the Hurricanes before heading north to Sale and Gloucester. In the 2015-16 season, Pau made a return to the top flight after 10 years away. That season, they finished 11th in the table and have continued to improve each season, 9th last season and are now 7th in the Top 14. Both Mannix and Cardiff’s coach Danny Wilson have been in charge for a similar number of games for their respective clubs, but the Kiwi has only managed 13 away victories in his 95 games.

The Referee

Forty-four year old John Lacey will referee his 23rd Challenge Cup game this weekend – and his first in Wales in that competition. In fact, he’s never refereed a Welsh team in the competition. Only David Wilkinson and Ian Davies are ahead of him in game count amongst referees still active in the Challenge Cup. Lacey was in charge when Pau came away with a victory at Kingsholm, and that was the only time he’s ever ref’d the men from the Pyrenees. Lacey’s record in the Pro14 puts him bang on average as favouring neither home nor away team in this career – with a 63% home win record (just about average for the league). This season, Lacey is averaging 0.7 yellow cards per game, which again puts him mid-table (much as he was last season).  This season, Lacey has ref’d Cardiff only once – in their narrow home victory over Benetton in March.

Attack

Cardiff are unbeaten at home this year, but if one compares their home stats with Pau’s away stats this season, it is the Frenchmen who come out on top in just about every facet of the game. The Frenchmen offload more per game, their pass count is higher, the team beat more defenders per game and make more breaks. They’ve run more than 30m per game further (on average) than Cardiff. If one looks at Pau’s attacking record round by round in the Pro14, they consistently feature at the top end of the attacking stats. When they’ve been ahead at half time, they’ve only gone on to lose in two fixtures this season. Cardiff’s ability to come from behind (at half time) and win is far from impressive, having only done so once in the Pro14 this season. Despite their attacking prowess, Pau have been less successful in securing bonus points in the Top14. On only 7 occasions have they scored three tries or more. It is rare for Cardiff to face a team who are weaker than them in this measure.

Set Piece

No team has conceded more scrums against the head than Pau during this season’s Top14, and it seems certain that Cardiff will target this facet of the game. Their lineout too is shakey – second worst in the league. Expect a kicking game from Cardiff, playing the territory and an effort to deny possession to Pau’s impressive attacking skills.

Defence

Both Pau and Cardiff have very similar tackle stats for this season.  In the Top14, no team has – on average – attempted more tackles per game away from home than Pau. But the completion rate is poor when set against Pro14 teams and this could prove the decisive factor this weekend.

 

Discipline

Pau’s disciplinary record in the Top14 has seen them average 0.8 cards per game – mid-table in a league where referees are more generous with their cards than in other major leagues.  This season, they’ve conceded six cards in the Challenge Cup to five from Cardiff. Pau’s discipline shows little difference between home and away games. They are averaging 9.4 penalties a game in the Top14 having conceded 111 penalties at home and 114 away from home. Cardiff, meanwhile, average 10.7 penalties per game, but there is some daylight between their discipline in home games as opposed to away games. There seems much more equality in the way Top14 cards are awarded than similar data for the Pro14. There is a spread of only 12 penalties between the team who receive cards most frequently (Clermont – at a rate of 10 per penalty concede) and that who receive cards least frequently (Oyonnax at a rate of one card every 22 penalties). In the Pro14, the spread is a remarkable 58 – skewed by the rarely-carded Scarlets.

Prediction

All the stats show both teams are equally across the board and the game should be a tight one. But the biggest difference is psychological. Despite their victory in Gloucester, Pau have been poor on the road this season and Cardiff will be playing at home. The Arms Park is the toughest place to play in the Challenge Cup where the home team have a 92% success rate. This will prove the decisive factor and the Welshmen will run out victors 28-13.

Southern Kings vs Cardiff Blues

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Head to Head

This weekend’s fixture will be the first time these two teams have faced each other. The Kings were formed by the South African Rugby Union in January 2009 in an effort to bring rugby to the Eastern Cape. Their first opponents were the British and Irish Lions during their tour of 2009. They enjoyed their first season of Super Rugby in 2013, playing 16 games and achieving three victories – one of which was against the Highlanders. Financial problems saw the team focus on domestic competitions before a second attempt at Super Rugby also drew limited success. This season, they’ve managed only one victory, ratcheting up 45 points against the hapless Dragons.

The Coaches

The Kings are coached by Deon Davids – who once worked under Rudy Joubert at the Boland Cavaliers. He’s been with the Kings since the start of the 2016 Super Rugby season. It’s been a tough job for Davids, with his team having won only nine of the forty nine games he’s overseen and the experience in this season’s Pro14 has been particularly hard. Wilson’s role at Cardiff is coming to an end and he’ll be keen to end on a high. A victory in this fixture will ensure European Champions Rugby for the first time for the club since 2013-14.

The Referee

Irishman Sean Gallagher refs his fifth game of the Pro14 season this weeks. At the age of only 28, he’s one of the youngest referees in the league. He’s ref’d the Kings twice this season without success for the men from the Eastern Cape. The omens are good for the visitors, however. Gallagher ranks at the bottom of the league when it comes to homers – only 44% of the games he’s reff’d have seen the home team victorious.

Attack

In attack, the Kings are a mid-table team, averaging a score every 1.88 minutes when in possession of the ball. However, no team has beaten fewer defenders this season (by some margin) and they have carried the ball less than any other team in the league – even less than the Ospreys. But when one compares the relative potency of the two teams in attack, the Kings have scored more points at home this season than the visitors have managed away from home.

Set Piece

Cardiff’s lineout creaked under the strain last week, but they still stand top of the league for fewest lineouts lost on their own throw this season. Against the Cheetahs, they managed only a 75% success rate on their own throw – their second worst performance of the season. As third choice hooker, Kirby Myhill will be under pressure this week, hopefully steering clear of Oompa-Loompa standard. On a more positive note, fortunately, they won’t have to contend with Mike Adamson’s curious interpretations of the scrum laws.

Defence

Defence – or the lack of it – has been something of a nightmare for the Southern Kings this season. They have conceded 150 points more than the truly dreadful Dragons. But it would be amiss to excuse the visitors from analysis of their own defensive record. So far this season, they have conceded 55 tries in the Pro14. In the last two season, they’ve managed to return a net positive on tries scored vs tries conceded, but this season they are at minus eight. This season has seen two of the worst squads ever to play in the Pro14 – the Dragons and the Kings. Both teams have conceded – on average – a staggering 42 points points per game away from home. They have surpassed even Zebre and Benetton’s rank mediocrity of last season.

Discipline

Cardiff are now averaging a yellow card per game in their away fixtures – something that will no doubt be a focus for the incoming coach next season. They are being carded at a rate of 16 penalties per card, whereas the Scarlets are only carded once every 70 penalties. And if Cardiff have something of a problem with discipline away from home, only Benetton have conceded more penalties at home than the Kings.

Prediction

With only an 11% home win ratio, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium is the easiest place in the league to secure a victory for visiting teams. This is a must-win game for the visitors and they will not disappoint. Cardiff are only four from ten this season in turning three tries into four (or more) and they’ll be desperate to make up for last week’s disappointment by ensuring the come away with a maximum points haul. Expect the visitors to run out victorious by 15-29.

Toyota Free State Cheetahs vs Cardiff Blues

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Head to Head

Cardiff secured a narrow three tries to two victory over the Cheetahs in front of their lowest home crowd of this season’s Pro14 in early February. The home side were arguably hanging on at the end of the game and the visitors were somewhat unlucky not to register a victory. Lloyd Williams, Owen Lane and Garyn Smith are the only three backs to feature in both starting XVs, and Cook, Davies and Peikrishvili the three remaining forwards. The team won 18 turnovers in that fixture – one of their better returns this season, but they lost 20 turnovers, in a game that lacked control from either side. Cardiff’s scrum was under pressure throughout that game and no doubt their opponents will focus on this facet of the game this weekend.

The Coaches

Ex-Benetton fly half, Franco Smith joined the Cheetahs in 2014 following six years coaching in Treviso. In Bloemfontein, he has a 42% win record, but there’s a big disparity between home and away.  Winning only five games (twice against the Sunwolves, and once each in Port Elizabeth, Newport and Parma) has been the Cheetahs Achilles heal this season. Cardiff’s recent run of form sees Wilson going for seven victories in a row – an unlikely scenario given his team was one from five at the start of the season.

The Referee

Mike Adamson will referee this weekend’s fixture, his twentieth in the Pro14. An ex-Glasgow player, this will be the fourth time for him to referee a South African team, having taken charge of Glasgow’s victory over the Southern Kings. The omens will be good for the Cheetahs, as he also refereed their comprehensive bonus-point victory over Leinster, the Irishmen’s biggest defeat this season. Adamson is one of the more whistle-happy referees, averaging more than 21 penalties per game. He’s also awarded more yellow cards than any other ref in the Pro14 this season, averaging 1.5 card a game. As homer‘s go, we can mark him down as one of the more neutral refs in the league.

Attack

The Cheetahs – alongside Glasgow and Leinster are one of the top points scoring teams in the competition. Unfortunately, only the Kings and Dragons have conceded more tries – but more of that later. Their attack remains one of the most potent in the competition and they average a point every 1.15 minutes – some way ahead of the second placed team. Only Glasgow and Leinster have carried the ball further than the Cheetahs his season. By way of contrast, the visitors play more of a kicking game,  averaging 24 kicks per away game, with the home team averaging only 19 per game in South Africa. They have also scored four tries or more on five occasions this season, something that Cardiff have managed only twice.

Set Piece

At the scrum, no side has lost fewer strikes against the head than the Cheetahs. This contrasts with Cardiff’s strength at the lineout, where no team has lost fewer lineouts than the Welshmen. Undoubtedly, this is reflected in their approach to tactical kicking, where they feel they can put pressure on opposition lineouts.

Defence

The Cheetahs have the worst home tackle completion ratio amongst any Pro14 team this season (81%), and whilst the gap with other teams is not large, in this facet of play even the smallest weakness can cost victory. Away from home, Cardiff have one of the best completion ratios (88%). The 233 tackles made in Galway back in September, still remains way out in front as the most impressive defensive performance by any team in the Pro14 this season.

Discipline

The South Africans may well feel aggrieved at rate at which they have conceded 12 yellow cards this season. Only Benetton has a lower penalty per card ratio. Discipline is clearly a problem for the home team and they’ve been penalised 200 times this season. Only their compatriots from Port Elizabeth have a (slightly) higher return. Again, there is a marked disparity between penalties at home (81) versus penalties away from home (119).  Of the 12 yellow cards, only two have been conceded at home

Prediction

The Welshmen have endured a horrific journey to Bloemfontein which has made a tough task even harder. Playing at altitude will compound the challenge. Even though Cardiff are on an impressive run of victories, it is debatable how many of these have been secured because of sub-standard performances by the opposition, rather than because of excellence from Cardiff. It has been their tenacity and will-to-win that has taken them over the line. However, this game will prove too tough for the visitors, and although they will secure a bonus point, the Cheetahs will run out victors by 29-24.

Cardiff Blues vs Ulster Rugby

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Head to Head

The Cardiff vs Ulster fixture has a long history, with the teams first meeting in the European Cup in 1995. But one of Cardiff’s biggest home victories was in January 2001, with a team featuring a Neil Jenkins masterclass. Overall, Cardiff are ahead with twelve wins to six in this fixture, but in latter years it’s been the Ulstermen who have generally had the upper hand. The respective try count for the two sides stands at 39-36 in favour of the home side which is a sign of how close this fixture has been over the years.

The Coaches

Not the Ospreys favourite player, Jono Gibbes joined Ulster from Clermont in the summer of 2017. Originally working under Kangaroos star and Director of Rugby Les Kiss, he took the top job when Kiss was unceremoniously dumped by Ulster in January.  It’s been an unhappy season for Gibbes, with his team having won only three times away from home under his stewardship. He too will leave Ulster at the end of the season. Meanwhile, Danny Wilson has designs on becoming Cardiff’s third most successful coach in the modern era, behind Dai Young and Yoda.

The Referee

Scotland’s Mike Adamson will referee this weekend’s fixture. He’s in his second season as a Pro14 referee and will be refereeing Cardiff for the third time. In true Pro14 tradition, despite featuring for Glasgow at outside half, he’s also refereed the team as well. Nevertheless, he’s one of a rare breed of referees who’ve also played the game as a professional – so all power to his elbow. As homer’s go, he’s firmly mid-table. However, when it comes to issuing cards, Mike is at the top of the league, averaging one and a half per game this season. Ulster have a 50-50 win ratio with Mike on the whistle and this season in the Pro14, only two away teams have won when Mike was reffing.

Attack

Ulster have scored 55 tries in 16 Pro14 games this season at a rate of 3.5 tries per game. That puts them near the top for the potency of their attack. Where their hosts have a deficit on tries for vs tries against, Ulster have a surplus. They have also been highly efficient at picking up bonus points. Seven times they’ve score three or more tries in a game, and on five occasions they’ve gone on to secure bonus points. By way of contrast, Cardiff have a miserable record. Despite having scored three or more tries on eight occasions, they have only secured three bonus points and this has been their Achilles heal this season.

Set Piece

Cardiff have conceded 13 scrums against the head this season – one of the poorest in the league – whilst Ulster have lost possession on their own put-in on nine occasions. However, at the lineout, only the Ospreys can boast fewer lost lineouts on their own throw. Curiously enough, both Ulster and Cardiff have won 184 lineouts this season in the Pro14 coming into this fixture.

Defence

Cardiff have one of the hardest working defences in the league and have made almost 350 more tackles than Ulster this season.  They are conceding 2.8 tries (on average) per game, as opposed to 2.9 tries by the Ulstermen. The home side is averaging a tackle completion ration of 88% per game, with the corresponding figure for the visitors standing at 86% – the same figure as their average away completion ratio in the Pro14 this season. A cumulative figure of 52 tackles were missed by both teams during this season’s trouncing of the The Kings in Belfast. In their home victory over Treviso in November, Ulster made 179 tackles during the game.

Discipline

Although this season hasn’t been the happiest for the Ulstermen, they are one of the most disciplined teams in the league. They have only conceded four yellow cards. Cardiff meanwhile have conceded two and a half times that figure and have one of the poorest disciplinary records in the league.  Ulster have conceded the fewest number of away penalties in the league. Consequently, they are averaging a yellow card every 30 penalties, whereas Cardiff’s figure is 18 penalties per card.

Prediction

This game will be another closely-fought fixture between the two teams. Wilson has picked a strong Cardiff side, with a very similar team likely to feature in Edinburgh next weekend. The home side is striving for a fifth victory on the trot in the Pro14 whilst Ulster haven’t won away from home since their Champions Cup victory versus Harlequins in December. The momentum is with the home side and they will squeeze to a narrow 22-16 victory.

Cardiff Blues vs Benetton Treviso

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Head to Head

Cardiff first faced Treviso back in the 1999-2000 season when we voted Dan Baugh as our man of the match. That game saw a narrow victory for the home team and since then Cardiff have gone on to rack up eight victories in a row over Treviso at the Arms Park. In recent years the fixture has been an open one, with Cardiff breaching the 50 points mark in the most recent two games.

The Coaches

New Zealand-born Kieran Crowley joined Treviso following a stint as coach of the Canadian national team, and he’s gone on to become one of Treviso’s most successful coaches in the modern era. So far this season, the Italians have already recorded eight victories in the Pro14 – only two shy of their best-ever 2012-2013 season. Danny Wilson will be looking to end his career at the Arms Park on a high, where his present win-loss record across all games (friendlies included) stands at 50%.

The Referee

Forty-four year old John Lacey (the second oldest official in the league) will referee his 68th Pro14 game this weekend. He originally played for Munster, a team he’s never refereed – of course.  Treviso have only won 29% of their games when John officiates. This fixture will be only his fifth this season, and he’s averaging 19.5 penalties per game.

Attack

Treviso rank towards the bottom of the table when it comes to points efficiency. They are averaging one point every 2.11 minutes, with almost a minute difference between them and the Cheetahs – the most clinical team in the league. This season, the Italians have scored 46 tries across all competitions and look set to break their best record of 54 tries in the 2012-2013 season. Whilst there’s been some improvement in Cardiff’s defensive record this season, their attacking threat has rapidly diminished. This season could well become their worst in three years for number of tries scored. Treviso have the record for the lowest number of meters run with ball-in-hand this season. Whilst they are averaging over 3m per carry, that lags a little behind Cardiff this season. There is little to choose between the two teams when it comes to frequency of kicks – at home, the Welshmen average 22 per game, and away from home Treviso’s average is only one less.

Set Piece

Cardiff’s lineout remains one of the strongest in the league, having lost fewer lineouts on their own throw than any other team. Their scrum stats are less impressive and Treviso will look to exert pressure in this facet of play.

Defence

Both Cardiff and Treviso rank near the top of the table for tackle completion ratio in the Pro14 – only Edinburgh ranks higher. In their last outing in Parma, Cardiff once more topped 200 in attempted tackles in one game, a good sign of the tenacity and application of the squad. Whilst Treviso have yet to record such high figures, an analysis of their record reveals consistency across the board – whether playing home or away.

Discipline

Treviso – along with the Cheetahs – are the most carded team in the league this season. One reason could be that whilst the Scarlets receive a card once every 61 penalties, a Treviso player is carded every 13 penalties. Cards are fairly evenly spread between home and away games. There is not too much to choose between the two teams when it comes to penalties conceded per game, and Treviso’s discipline away from home is far from the worst in the league.

Prediction

Although Treviso have won their last two away games in the Pro14 – in Newport and Parma – they have a miserable away record overall. The home team are discovering a new intensity to their game and seem determined to end the season on a high. With key players returning from injury, despite the loss of Welsh squad members, Cardiff will be too strong for an Italian side also shorn of its better players thanks to the ludicrous timing of this fixture. Whilst the home side won’t reach the heights of recent fixture between these two teams, they will secure a rare bonus point victory and record a 35-11 victory.

Zebre vs Cardiff Blues

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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.

The Coaches

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.

The Referee

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.

Attack

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.

Set Piece

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.

Defence

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.

Discipline

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.

Prediction

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.

Cardiff Blues vs Munster Rugby

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Head to Head

Cardiff and Munster have a long history of fixtures stretching back to the first European game between the two teams in October 1996. The early years saw big scores for the Welsh team as Munster struggled and until recently the 60-14 victory in 2004 was Cardiff’s biggest victory in the many guises of the Pro14. But in recent years, the advantage has shifted in the Irishmen’s favour. Whilst the games are invariably close, the home team have won only once in eight recent outings against Munster at Cardiff Arms Park.

The Coaches

Since his appointment in October 2016, Rassie Erasmus has the best coaching record of any of the current top coaches in Europe. His team has only lost six games away from home and only three outside Ireland.  His 74% success rate is up there with Mark McCall and ahead of Munster’s greatest rivals Leinster’s Leo Cullen.

The Referee

Thirty-five year old South African Stuart Berry will be refereeing his ninth Pro14 game this week and his second of the season featuring Cardiff. Never far from controversy in his Super Rugby days, he’s managed to avoid the limelight so far in the Pro14. Averaging over 21 penalties a game and 1.5 cards per game, he’s one of the more whistle-happy officials in the league.

Attack

Munster lack line breakers in their team and have the worst record in the league for line breaks.  Neither Cardiff nor Munster returns good stats for defenders beaten, and there’s little difference in the offloading stats between the two sides.  Munster are running 377 meters per game on average, whereas Cardiff’s figure is near the bottom of the league with only 341 meters per game. But on the scoreboard – where it counts – the Irishmen have score 116 points more than Cardiff in the Pro14 this season.

Set Piece

Only the Cheetah’s scrum stats are better than Munster’s in the Pro14 this season. The Irishmen have only lost five times against the head so far – half that of Cardiff. However, the figures are almost reversed at the lineout, where Cardiff have the best lineout in the league and Munster have conceded twice as many lineouts on their own throw as the Welshmen.

Defence

Cardiff’s 87% tackle completion ratio this season is one of the best in Europe and some way ahead of Munster’s 83% (though of course Munster have faced tougher competition in the Champions Cup). Looking closer, we can see that Munster’s 86% is little different from Cardiff’s 87% across all games in the Pro14. The Welshmen’s 233 tackle in one game (vs Connacht) still stands at the highest number made in one game this season.  But for all this highlight figure, Cardiff have conceded almost twice as many tries (44) as Munster (27)  in the Pro14. So despite individual excellence, defensive organisation remains a weakness at the club.

Discipline

It’s been some time since Cardiff faced a team with a worse disciplinary record this season, but for the second week in a row, the opposition have been carded more than the home team this season. With three away reds this season, no team has been red carded more than the Munstermen. Indeed, there is a marked difference between discipline at home – where they’ve only received two yellow cards, and the 8 cards they’ve received away from home. Cardiff have also only been carded twice at home. Only the Scarlets and Leinster have been penalised on fewer occasions at home than Cardiff this season, and Munster’s away record is equally impressive, having conceded only 62 penalties in 6 away games. All this means that Munster players are receiving cards once every 13 penalties (only Treviso have a lower figure).

Prediction

Munster’s much bigger playing budget affords them greater cover in depth during the Six Nations, but the home side will take heart from last week’s narrow victory over the Cheetahs. Wilson has the luxury of naming only one change in his starting XV and a stronger bench than he did against the Cheetahs. Munster struggled on the synthetic turf in Glasgow, making only 52 tackles all game. With dry weather forecast, expect the home team to make better use of the conditions and squeeze home with a narrow victory of 22-17.

Cardiff Blues vs Toyota Free State Cheetahs

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Head to Head

This is the first time for the two teams to meet in a competitive fixture though Cardiff did tour South Africa in 2012 when they narrowly defeated the Cheetahs.

The Coaches

Cheetah’s coach, Franco Smith, spent a season with Newport during 1999-2000 before taking up coaching in Bloemfontein in 2005. He went on to be appointed head coach of the then Super Rugby franchise for the 2016 season. In two seasons in Super Rugby he lead the Cheetahs to a total of eight victories –  six of those against the Kings and Sunwolves. In his 33 games in charge, his team has only won 4 games away from home. In the Pro12, a one point victory in Parma is the team’s only away win this season.

The Referee

Amongst the more senior referees in the Pro14, only Clancy, Lacey and Owens are older than Ian Davies.  This weekend will see Davies referee his 70th game in the competition, and only Owens, Clancy and Mitrea have officiated at more games. With a home-win rating of only 56%, Davies’ record reveals a more equitable approach to away teams than his peers. He’s ref’d Cardiff fourteen times (though only three times at CAP), with the home side losing on six occasions. He’s averaging only 16 penalties per game in the Pro14 – one of the lowest in the league. He’s yet to referee a game featuring the Cheetahs.

Attack

The Cheetahs rank fourth on the table of metres run with ball in hand this season – something the Welsh clubs do not excel at. Whilst Cardiff’s average metres-per-carry rate is highly variable, the visitors to the Arms Park this weekend are far more consistent, and the data shows little change since their Super Rugby season. They have a consistent approach to kicking – averaging at around 19 per game, whether playing at home or away. Cardiff, meanwhile, average 22 kicks per home game. With ball in hand, the Cheetahs average more defenders beaten per game than the Welshman, but there is little to choose between the two teams. The visitors are also offloading more, but again, the difference is slight.

Set Piece

The Cheetahs’ scrum is one of the strongest in the league, having lost only two against the head all season. But if the South Africans are strong in the scrum, then Cardiff’s lineout is the most consistent in the league with the fewest number of lineouts lost by some distance.

Defence

The Cheetahs have clearly sharpened their defence this season – conceding far fewer missed tackles per game in the Pro14 than they did in Super Rugby. But nevertheless, their work rate in defence falls some way short of Cardiff’s average of 113 tackles per game. Cardiff are conceding 3 tries – on average – per game in the Pro14, but the Cheetahs record is even worse (3.3 tries), despite being 15 points ahead of Cardiff in Conference A.

Discipline

Only Treviso have received more yellow cards than the Cheetahs this season. Of the 10 cards they’ve received, only two have been conceded at home. However, both Cardiff and the Cheetahs are averaging a card every 15 penalties. And penalised the Cheetahs certainly are! Their rate of 11.5 penalties per game is the highest in the league. Interestingly, whilst most other teams are disproportionately penalised away from home, the Cheetahs rate is almost identical – 74 at home and 75 away from home.

Prediction

Predicting the result of a game when there is no head-to-head track record is difficult, and this is compounded by the poor preparation the home team will have endured thanks to the disruptive effects of the Six Nations. However, given the Cheetah’s awful away form as well as their defensive frailties, the home team will run out victors by 26-14, once more missing out on a bonus point.

Lyon Olympique Universitaire vs Cardiff Blues

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Head to Head

This will be only the second fixture between Lyon and Cardiff following the fixture in October last year when the home team ran out 29-19 winners. At home, Lyon are a formidable outfit, having lost only twice at home this season, narrowly to La Rochelle and Toulouse. They sit mid-table in the Top14, having finished 10th last season following promotion from ProD2 where they spent a year during the 2015-16 season.

The Coaches

Pierre Mignoni played for seven clubs during a long career in French rugby, eventually ending his playing days with Toulon in 2011. He spent four years at the club post-retirement as a coach, before moving to Lyon in the summer of 2015. Since then, he’s brought stability to the club and amassed a very impressive 76% home win ratio. At Cardiff, Danny Wilson is coming to the end of his time with the club, and will want to improve on his overall 48% win rate. In a tight group, his team has only scored 9 tries (and only conceded 8). No other team in this season’s competition has scored fewer tries.

The Referee

33 year old Matt Carley will referee Cardiff for the third time in his career this weekend, but this will be the first time he will do so in a major fixture. 62% of games in the English premiership this season have resulted in home wins, and that’s also Carley’s overall record of home wins. This will be his 10th game in the Challenge Cup. He’s averaging just under 18.5 penalties per game in the Premiership, pretty much the same as last season. But when it comes to carding teams, Carley has been far from shy this season. So far, he’s doing so at a rate of 1.7 cards per game – with more than twice as many being awarded against the away team.

Attack

Cardiff have yet to score four tries in the Pro14 this season. Twelve times last season they scored three tries or more, and only once went on to score a bonus point in three games. Against Toulouse, Cardiff carried the ball 479m – their third highest carry figure this season. Meanwhile, in the Top14, Lyon average around 320m per game. With ball in hand, Cardiff play more of a kicking game than their French opponents – Lyon averaging 19 kicks a game whereas Cardiff’s figure is 20% higher. There is a fairly consistent difference over the last two seasons.

Set Piece

Lyon’s scrum is one of the more impressive in the Pro14 with a 92% success rate. However, in the Challenge Cup, they’ve been less successful, registering only 88%. Cardiff – meanwhile – have lost only one scrum on their put in so far in the competition. Lyon’s lineout success rate of 91% ranks above their visitors who have only managed an 85% in success rate in the competition. In the reverse fixture in Wales, Lyon returned a 100% success rate from 8 feeds to the scrum and the visitors inflicted Cardiff’s only loss against the head in this season’s competition.

Defence

Cardiff have the strongest home record of any of the teams featuring in the Challenge Cup this season – having won over 91% of their home games with their last defeat being in November 2015 when they lost to Harlequins.  Lyon also have an impressive home record, having only lost twice at home in the competition with their last defeat being to the Ospreys in October 2016. In Lyon’s last four games, the team has recorded a tackle success rate of only around 80%, so they’ll want to improve on this for the visit of Cardiff. As for the Welshmen, their tackle stats reflect the up-and-down nature of their performances. Overall, Cardiff have a completion rate of 89% in the Challenge Cup this season, whereas Lyon’s 85% sees them in the lower half of the table. Missing 28 and 29 tackles in away games against Toulouse and Sale lie behind this percentage. Against Connacht in September, Cardiff completed 233 tackles in the game – the most by any team in any fixture in European pro-rugby this season. They’ll need to replicate that commitment if they want to secure a victory in Lyon.

Discipline

Only Treviso and Munster have received more cards that Cardiff in the Pro14, and Cardiff’s discipline has deteriorated over the last two seasons. No team has been penalised more than Cardiff in the Pro14 with the team having conceded 138 penalties. Last season, Lyon’s discipline was amongst the best in France in the Top14, though this year, they remain mid-table. Interestingly enough, Lyon can match Cardiff as the most penalised team in France in the Top14, so it would seem that Carley is set for a busy evening.

Prediction

Last season, the visitors lost eleven games away from home – already this season, the figure stands at seven. However, in the Challenge Cup, Cardiff have won three out of their last five away games, with the failure to perform in Salford a real blight. When it comes to France, Cardiff have the best record of away wins amongst the professional clubs in Wales, but victories still remain a rarity. As with many French teams, they present a different proposition when playing at home. This game represents a dead rubber for both sides, but it will be Lyon’s desire to maintain their home record that will see them come away as victors in a closely fought game, 22-21.

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