Cardiff Blues were drawn in Pool Four of the 2016/17 European Challenge Cup on Wednesday, alongside English Premiership rivals Bath Rugby and Bristol RFC, and Section Paloise of the French Top 14.
It’s fair to say the draw could have been a whole lot worse as out of the tier three clubs it was between Section Paloise and Stade Francais, and from tier four it was either a nice jump across the Severn Bridge to Bristol, or an unholy trek to Siberia and Enisei-STM. In that sense we have been blessed by some close trips and games for potential to attract bumper crowds.
So let’s take a quick look at the individual sides next year, starting with the Aviva Premiership new boys. They are the only team in Pool Four that we’ve faced in European competition since 2003 when, back in 2007/08, we did the double over them thanks to scorelines of 34-13 and 0-17 in the Champions Cup.
Only Gethin Jenkins, Tom James and, of course, Tau Filise remain from those days where tries from Ma’ama Molitika, Martyn Williams, Jamie Robinson and Gareth Thomas, as well as the ever dependable boot of Ben Blair, saw us win the group but eventually go out to Toulouse in the quarter-finals.
The two sides will know each other well having done a number of live training sessions last year, thanks to the link with head coach Danny Wilson who joined us from being Bristol’s defence coach, and he will return to the West Country alongside our new attack coach Matt Sherratt and full-back Matthew Morgan. Meanwhile Cardiff old boys Callum Sheedy and Gavin Henson will return to memory lane.
On the pitch it will be a tough match, there’s no question about it, as Bristol will no doubt strengthen the side that won the Championship last season. Both games will be full blooded Severnside derbies and I sincerely hope we get 160 minutes of attacking, free-running rugby. One thing that will be interesting to see is how Bristol get on in the early stages of their Premiership return, as that form will have an impact on our match.
Prediction: Cardiff to win twice.
As far as I can see Cardiff have never played the side with the full name of Section Paloise Bearn Pyrenees in competition, certainly not since 2003 anyway. Despite having a long name, they’re not exactly a big name in European rugby, having been cast off in the wilderness of the Pro D2 for 10 years between 2005 and 2015.
The Challenge Cup winners of 2000 enjoyed their first season back in the Top 14 last year finishing in 11th place, comfortably above relegation but not threatening the top half. Marquee signings of Conrad Smith last summer, and Steffon Armitage for this, show they are no pushovers when it comes to spending money as well.
By virtue of winning the Pro D2 in 2015 they entered last season’s Challenge Cup and it’s fair to say, the side better known as Pau after the town where they’re based, did not exactly trouble the scoreboards. Six losses in the Pool stages to Newport, Sale and Castres saw them finish stone dead last without a single losing bonus point.
Of course historically French sides never really take the Challenge Cup seriously and, with it being their first season back in top flight domestic rugby, that would have been their first priority, but I can’t see much changing this year. They will again be one of the favourites for relegation in the Top 14 and are unlikely to risk their stars in Europe this season as a result.
Prediction: Cardiff to win twice.
Now I was just three years old on 8th November 1997, but I am well aware of how we were robbed in a Champions Cup quarter-final in Bath. I don’t know the exact ins and outs, but the rough gist that’s been passed down over the years is that referee Didier Mene had a blue and white hooped top on under his. Super Craig Morgan had his good try ruled out, Victor Ubogu had his offside try ruled in.
Cardiff went home under a cloud as some thugs tried to attack Mene, and now we’ve had to wait almost 20 years for revenge. It won’t be easy, Bath have a real World Class team with England internationals Dave Atwood, George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson being joined by star foreign players Francois Louw and David Denton. New signings of Welshmen Luke Charteris and Taulupe Faletau just go to compliment the squad they have.
Mike Ford paid the price for a poor season with the players at his disposal last year so Bath will also have a new man in charge come our game, with every big name in World Rugby being linked. Heyneke Meyer, Stuart Lancaster, Nick Mallett and every single New Zealand Super Rugby coach have all been mentioned at some point.
Who the Bath management name as coach and how fast they hit the ground running will have a big effect on what the results are like in our head-to-heads but, just like the Bristol games, they will be fast-paced and intense Anglo-Welsh affairs. I am looking forward to my first visit to the Rec, and a win to come home with this time!
Prediction: Revenge is coming…..
Overall, there’s no question it’s not an easy group, but one that if we play like we did in the second half of last season then I’d be disappointed not to qualify as at least a best runner-up. Players staying fit will of course have a big impact, as will younger players stepping up to big European occasions, but under Danny Wilson’s guidance I am confident.
Two West country teams bringing big followings to Anglo-Welsh games will see huge crowds and I hope the Cardiff faithful match that for some cracking atmospheres watching quality games. As ever all I ask for is 100% commitment from the players and we can go far, come on Cardiff!!