DRAGONS v BLUES (Tonight, KO 6.30)
IF the Newport Gwent Dragons squad were in any doubt about what is expected of them against Cardiff Blues at Rodney Parade tonight then it was made crystal clear at training on Wednesday.
An area was cordoned off, approximately 20 metres by 20 metres, and a brutal, physical contact session ensued, eight men at a time.
There was no winding down ahead of the derby against their nearest neighbours and the message from assistant coach Rob Appleyard was clear – get stuck into them.
“What we have got to bring tonight is what the Dragons have been known for over the years at Rodney Parade,” said Appleyard, who is responsible for the forwards and defence.
“They have been thought of as a ferocious team that won’t take a backward step, a team that go out there and intimidate their opposition.
“It’s all about the hunger to win and the hunger to not let them cross our whitewash, to never give up and have an unyielding attitude.
“We have worked hard over the summer to create a real mental toughness because every team is doing fitness, every team is doing weights, every team is doing skills.
“We wanted to do that but with an old school attitude of wanting to win the physical battle, which will be key against the Blues.”
No area will be more ferocious than the back row where the Blues field Wales skipper Sam Warburton at openside with regional captain Andries Pretorius at number eight and Josh Navidi at blindside.
The Dragons counter with international stars Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau joined by captain Lewis Evans, a man who could well push himself into the Wales reckoning with a strong display.
“This is the game where players measure themselves against their peers,” said Appleyard, himself a former Cardiff back row forward.
“There are players, in the back row for example, fighting it out for international positions.
“Everyone wants those bragging rights and we all know each other very well. The players and coaching staff all communicate a lot and it’s the game of the season that everybody wants to get a victory in.”
The Dragons name the same set of three-quarters for the third game on the spin while it’s all change in the front row.
Phil Price, Steve Jones and Dan Way all return after staying in Wales while their colleagues were in Dublin last weekend.
The Blues hand a first start to Tom Williams at full-back while young Rhys Patchell is handed the number 10 jersey.
Wales and Lions centre Jamie Roberts will look to make an impact off the bench for the visitors on his return from knee surgery, as will Dragons record points scorer Ceri Sweeney.
Having recorded a 13-9 win against Connacht in Galway in round one, the Blues were brought back down to earth with a bump last Friday.
Their Cardiff Arms Park homecoming was ruined by Greig Laidlaw’s late drop goal that edged Edinburgh to a 21-19 win.
Director of rugby Phil Davies knows that they must block out the fervent home support if they are to get back to winning ways this evening.
He said: “Rodney Parade is a great place to go and play. It has retained its atmosphere from years ago.
“I am sure it will be good, we will have a lot of shouting and excitement down there and we are looking forward to it.
“The Dragons had a great win against Zebre and then they went to Leinster, where even though they were defeated they played some good rugby.
“Any team that has Lydiate and Faletau playing for them is going to be a threat.
“They are a good side all round, they have a strong front five and good half backs, they have some good pace on the wing – they are a well balanced team.”
HOW THEY LINE UP
Dragons: D Evans, W Harries, P Leach, A Tuilagi, T Prydie, Steffan Jones, J Evans, P Price, Steve Jones, D Way, I Nimmo, A Jones, D Lydiate, L Evans (captain), T Faletau. Replacements: H Gustafson, A Coundley, N Buck, J Groves, T Brown, L Davies, A Smith, A Hughes.
Cardiff Blues: T Williams, A Cuthbert, G Evans, D Hewitt, H Robinson, R Patchell, L Williams, N Trevett, M Breeze, T Filise, B Davies, J Down, J Navidi, S Warburton, A Pretorius (captain). Replacements: K Dacey, T Davies, B Bourrust, L Reed, R Watts-Jones, L Jones, C Sweeney, J Roberts.
Referee: Neil Hennessy (WRU)