Blues seek favours from neighbours in play-off race

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Newport Gwent Dragons, very much the poor cousins of the professional game in Wales, are rarely desperate to perform favours for Cardiff Blues, their better-heeled neighbours, so they find themselves in a slightly itchy position ahead of tonight's final Magners League regular-season game at Rodney Parade. Victory over Ulster will not make one iota of difference to their own league standing, but it might transform their great rivals' damp-squib campaign into something memorable.

The Blues occupy the last of the four play-off places, three points adrift of the Belfast side. More pertinently, they are only a point ahead of Ospreys, the under-achievers from Swansea who are also seeking salvation after a miserable few months. Ospreys should record a bonus victory over Aironi in northern Italy – surely, not even Scott Johnson's scatterbrained charges can lose there – while the Blues have a far tougher challenge against Scarlets, who are also in the qualification shake-up. Even if Cardiff win in Llanelli, they are likely to need a leg-up from their nearest and dearest.

Scarlets will be missing a couple of top-notch players tonight: the international centre Jonathan Davies has a "dead" leg while the impressive flanker Josh Turnbull has a toe injury. But Morgan Stoddart, George North, Stephen Jones, Tavis Knoyle and the Wales captain Matthew Rees all start and with the New Zealand centre Regan King playing his last game for the club after six years of high-calibre service, motivation will be high.

There is no sign of Mike Phillips, the reigning Lions scrum-half, in the Ospreys party for the game in Viadana: unsettled for the last 18 months, it seems the selectors have washed their hands of him. Young Rhys Webb starts at the base of the pack, with Tom Isaacs on the bench.

Meanwhile, Toulon have named the former Ospreys centre Gavin Henson in a 26-man squad for tomorrow's win-or-bust Top 14 match in Montpellier. This time last week, Henson was under suspension for saying bad things about, and fighting with, his teammates in a Cote d'Azur bar. One apology later, he is back in the swing of things and pitching for a new contract. Toulon must take something from their visit to Stade Yves du Manoir to stand a realistic chance of making the play-off phase of their domestic tournament.