GLASGOW have made a rare move and stuck with the same team as they bid to step up their drive into the RaboDirect Pro12 play-offs in Cardiff tonight.
With Stuart Hogg and Duncan Weir in the Scotland camp and the injury list now featuring an entire threequarter line in Peter Murchie, Sean Maitland, DTH van der Merwe, Byron McGuigan and Peter Horne, coach Gregor Townsend has again asked versatile Fijian Niko Matawalu to play at full-back after a tight game in which he struggled to ignite the Warriors attack against Connacht last week.
Former Scotland back row Richie Vernon continues his centre pairing with Mark Bennett and Edinburgh loan signing Lee Jones and youngster Rory Hughes remain in the wing berths. Henry Pyrgos and Ruaridh Jackson are at half-back, and Scotland have released Chris Cusiter and Jonny Gray to the Warriors bench.
The team is captained by No 8 Josh Strauss and prop Ed Kalman makes his 100th appearance for the club, while new American centre Folau Niua makes his first appearance on the bench.
After having their European hopes dashed in Cardiff earlier in the season, Townsend stated that his side was not lacking for inspiration ahead of the return to the Arms Park.
He said: “We travel to Cardiff with plenty of motivation given it was our two defeats to the Blues that effectively ended our Heineken Cup ambitions this season. We were really disappointed with our back-to-back defeats to the Blues and we’re determined to make amends this weekend. The Blues are a quality side and will be looking to get back to winning ways after their defeat to Munster.
“This is the first of three consecutive games on the road for us and we know this is a crucial period of the season, ahead of a number of home games.”
Glasgow currently sit just outside the play-off places, three points behind the Ospreys and 11 off leaders Munster. They have two home games in hand against Treviso and Edinburgh, and know that wins in both would take them up alongside Leinster in second spot.
But, as Townsend outlined, they now face Cardiff, the Dragons and Leinster all away from home through the Six Nations period when the leading players are missing. This is where the strength in depth of the sides are tested and Townsend is hopeful that it is where his signings over the past year will come into their own.
Cardiff, however, have been doing some strengthening of their own and while some of the back line is young and inexperienced they have a strong-looking pack.
Samoa centre Isaia Tuifua will make his first league start for the Blues tonight after impressing off the bench in one of seven changes made by director of rugby Phil Davies to the team that was thrashed 54-13 at Munster last week.
Tuifua joins fit-again Dafydd Hewitt in midfield while Richard Smith returns on the wing and Simon Humberstone, the 26-year-old recently signed from Pontypridd, is at fly-half. Up front, Wales and British and Irish Lions prop Gethin Jenkins returns, and takes over as captain. Test tighthead Scott Andrews is also back after a long-term injury and Wales skipper Sam Warburton is released to help his eagerness for game-time after a long injury absence.
Warburton is under pressure from supporters after Wales’ humbling 26-3 defeat in Ireland with France next up for the Test side at the Millennium Stadium. But he is hopeful of helping his club in a first run-out at the Arms Park in nearly four months and helping himself get back up to speed for the Test challenge in a week’s time.
“I’m looking forward to playing this weekend,” he said. “It’s a win-win situation.
“Hopefully I can help them pick up some points in the league and for me I get the benefit of getting some more miles in the legs as well. It will be great to be back and put the blue jersey back on. I haven’t played for them since October, so it’s been a good few months and it will be nice to be back out there.
“The defeat out in Munster was disappointing but we have got a home game, in front of our fans and it’s a great chance to pick up some points.” Coach Davies is, like Townsend, looking at the run of three games through the Six Nations period as being central to his bid to lift the Blues from their current ninth spot at least into the top half of the table, and a guaranteed place in next season’s European competition.
“We’ve had three tightly-fought games with Glasgow this season and I’m sure this clash in the RaboDirect Pro12 will be no different,” he said.
“It’s a massive game for us. Our next three fixtures with Glasgow and Leinster at the Arms Park and Zebre in Italy are vital. All the players are working exceptionally hard and we’ve some quality internationals back in the line-up that we hope will give us that extra momentum.”