A welcome distraction from Guinness Pro12 woes comes for Cardiff Blues this weekend as the team head south to the foot of the Pyrenees to take on Pau in the Challenge Cup. With just two games to go in the pool stage, Danny Wilson’s men still have it all to play for.
At this point the equation is pretty simple, two wins and we’re through to the knockout stages. After last night’s emphatic bonus point win for Bath against Bristol I’d suggest that winning the pool is now out of the question, but we are more than in the driving seat for a best runners-up spot if we win our games.
Obviously we are all aware that the last few weeks of action in the Pro12 particularly have been disappointing. Two wins in nine games have put hopes of finishing within the top six on the back burner with Ulster six points ahead of us and having the benefit of a game in hand against Italian opposition.
As such the Challenge Cup is probably the best chance of salvaging a sense of success from this season for two reasons. Obviously the achievement of a good cup run, as well as some silverware, is never to be sniffed at, but the big attraction of competing in Europe’s second tier tournament is the automatic qualification for next season’s Champions Cup.
With the likelihood being that we’d enter the lottery of some inter-league play-offs at the end of the season by finishing seventh or eighth, qualifying direct through the Challenge Cup would be a welcome surprise, and as such Danny Wilson may want to consider changing his priority this season from the Pro12 towards Europe.
The start of that focus comes in the South of France this weekend, although in the cold mountainous part rather than the sunny Mediterranean part, with a visit to Section Paloise, the whipping boys of pool four. They currently sit stone dead last with a solitary point, that coming in an opening loss at home to Bath.
Twelve tries conceded over a week to Bristol mean they have shipped 121 points in their four games and have the fourth worst points difference in the competition. This is largely as a result of being a team consigned to the lower half of the Pro12, and as such massively prioritising league survival over European success.
Don’t be fooled by those stats though, this won’t be a walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination. Since Pau’s back-to-back defeats to Bristol they’ve turned a big corner in the domestic form, with three straight wins over the Christmas period, albeit close ones, taking them away from the relegation zone. The standout result being a 40-35 win over Clermont at home.
Despite last weekend’s game against Lyon being called off though, they have still made 10 changes to the side which was supposed to turn out. Internationals Jamie Mackintosh, Steffon Armitage, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor are amongst those that are rested, but 15-cap Australian Ben Mowen retains his place, as does Fijian back Watisoni Votu.
Pau team: Charly Malie, Louis Dupichot, Pierre Dupouy, Watisoni Votu, Mosese Ratuvou, Brandon Fajardo, Julien Tomas; Julien Jacquot, Quentin Lespiaucq Brettes, Malik Hamadache , Masalosalo Tutaia, Daniel Ramsay, Ben Mowen, Sean Dougall, Paddy Butler (c)
Replacements: Lucas Rey, Jérémy Hurou, Sylvain Charlet, Baptiste Pesenti, Giovanni Habel Kuffner, Taniela Moa Teutau, Marvin Lestremeau, Romain Buros
Cardiff meanwhile will be looking to get some revenge for the reverse fixture back in November when things didn’t quite go to plan despite a comfortable win. An early try from Blaine Scully was pegged back by Pau, but a second half brace from Cory Allen put the game to bed. The disappointment came when the bonus point didn’t arrive following a 20-minute period at the end of the game when we should have been pushing for it, but chose to defend our own line from a fierce Pau onslaught.
At the time Danny Wilson said the team would have learned more from the defensive set than they would have benefitted from going for the bonus point, but I think we were all a bit sceptical of that, and even more so now we’re neck-and-neck with Bath.
Unfortunately the now extra important need to push on in Europe has been somewhat hampered by an unavailbable list that seems to stay the same incredibly long length every week but with different names on it. This week’s new additions come in the form of Brad Thyer (head), Rhys Gill (head), Kris Dacey (u/k), Ellis Jenkins (head), Rey Lee-Lo (u/k) and Blaine Scully (personal reasons), meaning there’s some big changes in the starting line-up.
An all-new front row sees Corey Domachowski start at loosehead in his first full appearance for the club, where he is joined by the experience of Matthew Rees and Fa’ao Filise. Jarrad Hoeata slots in behind them at second row as Macauley Cook drops back to flanker, completing the changes in the forwards.
There’s an all-new half-back pairing with Tomos Williams finally starting ahead of Lloyd, while Nicky Robinson makes his first start since returning. Steve Shingler and Willis Halaholo both move a position wider to form a new centre partnership, while Cory Allen and Rhun Williams start on the wings.
On the bench it is down to Anton Peikrishvili to provide loosehead cover, with Kirby Myhill recalled to the squad alongside Seb Davies and Cam Dolan. Lloyd Williams and Alex Cuthbert both drop to the substitutes after recent poor form where they are joined by Garyn Smith to complete the backs cover.
Cardiff team: Matthew Morgan, Cory Allen, Willis Halaholo, Steve Shingler, Rhun Williams, Nicky Robinson, Tomos Williams; Corey Domachowski, Matthew Rees, Taufa’ao Filise, Jarrad Hoeata, James Down, Macauley Cook, Sam Warburton (c), Josh Navidi
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Anton Peikrishvili, Scott Andrews, Seb Davies, Cam Dolan, Lloyd Williams, Garyn Smith, Alex Cuthbert
There’s no doubt that it will be a tough game on Saturday, in freezing conditions away against a French side with a hostile crowd, and with a somewhat makeshift team it won’t be easy after just a week of training, most of which I’m sure was spent recovering from a brutal few weeks.
However, although it appears makeshift, it may just be the freshening up we require as for a few weeks now our attack has looked somewhat stale. Tomos Williams will be keen to impress, giving his impetus at scrum-half, while Nicky Robinson’s flat first receiver position should be a good base to play off. With Shingler outside him it also gives an extra first receiver and a footballing option at 12.
Macauley Cook’s reappearance in the back row should bring extra dynamism to our ball carrying, although Jarrad Hoeata and James Down will need to step up in this area. One place we should be strong is our scrum though, as the pack named is probably the heaviest we’ve produced this season.
Overall it’s a difficult one to call with Pau sending out a second string side into a competition they openly don’t care about, despite having home advantage, while Cardiff are desperate for the win but due to circumstance are missing a number of players and have a number of new partnerships in the line-up, coughing up a fair few unknowns.
The key will be dominating possession. Using the weight up front and setting up a platform for the backs to play off as there is sure to be a few questions asked of a slightly lightweight midfield and a back three that aren’t especially renowned for their prowess under the high ball. Kick well and counter attack with meaning, and let the forwards go to work.
All we can do is look after ourselves and get the points on the board to put us in the best possible position come the end of the pool stage, this is a chance for a fresh start, with a fresh XV in a competition we have overall done pretty well in this season. Time to bring back some positivity, come on Cardiff!
Cardiff record v Pau: W 1 L 0
Cardiff form: WLWLL
Pau form: LLWWW
Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)
Pau top try scorer: Watisoni Votu (4)
Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (112)
Pau top points scorer: Tom Taylor (29)
Gary Conway (IRFU) – The Irishman has only ever refereed Cardiff on three previous occasions, all against Italian teams. With the home game being a win and the two away games being losses it doesn’t bode well. He has refereed in Pau once before though, a home loss to Sale, maybe some hope!