Munster, who signed off for the international break with a one-point league lead over Glasgow, visit the Arms Park (6:30pm) for their first experience of the Welsh region’s 4G synthetic turf with Felix Jones installed at full-back after a week in Joe Schmidt’s national camp at Carton House.
Also making the journey south to join their provincial colleagues were forward quartet Donncha O’Callaghan, James Coughlan, Mike Sherry and Stephen Archer, all of whom feature among the Munster replacements.
Munster head coach Rob Penney, who will have three of his frontliners, Conor Murray, Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony, starting for Ireland against New Zealand tomorrow, is viewing this and next week’s trip to the Newport & Gwent Dragons as crucial barometers of his team’s title prospects as well as a vital lead-in to next month’s Heineken Cup double-header with Perpignan.
“It could easily be [a season-defining period],” said Penney. “It’s exciting for us. This group here, with the number of injures we have got and the group in the national camp... have got a great opportunity to put pressure on selectors and ourselves to maintain their position and get a position in the Heineken Cup and kick on from there.
“It’s always challenging playing away and playing Welsh teams away, given some of the things that have happened. It’s a challenge we just have to rise to and are capable or rising to if we put our game face on.”
Penney has made five changes to the side that overcame Ospreys last time out in Limerick on November 2. James Cronin comes in at loosehead prop with Dave Kilcoyne dropping to the bench, while in the second row, Donncha O’Callaghan’s place on the bench means a start for Billy Holland alongside Dave Foley. JJ Hanrahan comes in for the injured Ian Keatley at fly-half and will partner scrum-half Cathal Sheridan, who replaces Duncan Williams. Academy out-half Johnny Holland could make his league debut for Munster as bench cover for Hanrahan while Denis Hurley is also named among the replacements having overcome a knee injury.
There was also good news for Penney’s forward options with lock Ian Nagle back from injury and available for Cork Con this weekend but the Munster coach is facing up to the possibility of not being able to re-integrate Murray, O’Connell and O’Mahony for next Friday’s Dragons trip and will have to wait until the Heineken Cup home game with Perpignan December 8.
“I doubt if the guys that play against New Zealand will be available five days later because we play on the Friday night. I don’t think so, anyone who plays in the Test will not be available for Newport. So in for Perpignan, that’s the nature of the game.”
More immediately, Munster will be looking to repeat last season’s 24-18 league win at the Arms Park 12 months ago and avenge a 17-6 defeat in the return leg at Musgrave Park in January.
Blues director of rugby Phil Davies has made five changes from the side that beat Ospreys in the LV= Cup last week but is still without 20 players due to injuries and Wales call-ups.
CARDIFF BLUES: T Williams; R Smith, G Evans, D Hewitt, C Czekaj; S Humberstone, L Jones; S Hobbs — captain, K Dacey, T Filise; M Cook, J Down; A Pretorius, J Navidi, R Copeland.
Replacements: R Williams, T Davies, B Bourrust, T Young, R Watts-Jones, L Hamilton, T Williams, G Davies.
MUNSTER: F Jones; A Conway, C Laulala, I Dineen, J Murphy; JJ Hanrahan, C Sheridan; J Cronin, D Varley, BJ Botha; D Foley, B Holland; Dave O’Callaghan, S Dougall, CJ Stander.
Replacements: M Sherry, D Kilcoyne, S Archer, Donncha O’Callaghan, J Coughlan, D Williams, J Holland, D Hurley.