The time has come. European quarter-final weekend. It’s the one we’ve all been waiting for, a trip to Kingsholm, a renewing of the cross-border rivalry with Gloucester and the last chance at silverware for Cardiff Blues this season. This is a big game.
There will be around 1,000 Cardiff fans heading to the West Country on Saturday, to join 10,000 Gloucester fans in what will be a proper rugby atmosphere at a proper rugby ground. Two teams packed with quality going hammer and tongs at each other for a chance to play in a European semi-final. A second tier competition, you say? Certainly doesn’t feel like it.
We’ve got history to look back on favourably of course, in both this fixture and competition. 2008-09 was the year and Cardiff met Gloucester three times that year. Once in the victorious Anglo-Welsh Cup Final, and twice in the then Heineken Cup group games. Wins at Twickenham and the Millennium were excellent, but it’s the Kingsholm game that receives the focus.
Although the Cup Final win sticks out in my mind, all it takes is the phrase ‘Tom James red card’ and memories are conjured up of that game in the West Country. The score was 6-3 to the home side on the 27th minute when Gloucester hooker Olivier Azam pushed TJ. The players squared up, but the Frenchman threw himself to the floor as the Cardiff winger moved his head towards his opponent.
Cardiff went down to 14, but only conceded three more points until half-time. Nicky Robinson has revealed this week that Gareth Thomas gave a stirring team talk, and this inspired the team to go out and secure a famous 12-16 victory thanks to the boot of Leigh Halfpenny and a late try from Bradley Davies, who had accidentally taken two sleeping tablets before the game.
Things have changed a lot at Gloucester since then, with Dean Ryan, Bryan Redpath and Nigel Davies leaving the Director of Rugby role now occupied by David Humphreys, although he is currently multi-tasking as Head Coach after the recent departure of Laurie Fisher.
Fisher’s resignation, published via Twitter, is an indicator of how disappointing Gloucester’s season has been. In fact, it’s been pretty similar to ours in that an encouraging start was followed by two league wins in nine from September to January. Recent results, including a home win over Saracens, have moved them up to eighth within distance of the top six though.
In terms of Europe though it’s been a different story as the West Country side topped Pool A, losing just once, away to Top14 leader La Rochelle, with Bayonne and Treviso swept aside comfortably. Like Cardiff, this is the last opportunity for some silverware now and they are going all out to give themselves the best chance.
Unfortunately for them, starting centre duo David Halaifonua and Andrew Symons were both injured in last week’s win over Bristol, but in Billy Twelvetrees and Henry Trinder they have more than capable replacements. Joining them in the backs are exciting young fly-half Billy Burns, as well as England wingers Jonny May and Charlie Sharples.
Up front there is some serious size to a pack that includes Ben Morgan, Ross Moriarty, Jeremy Thrush and Ross Moriarty, although perhaps in the key positions of prop and openside flanker they are lacking top quality options. With their scrum struggling against Bristol last week there may be an opportunity to compete at the set piece for Cardiff.
Experienced internationals John Afoa and Mariano Galarza provide some options off the bench, but David Humphreys won’t have any big name backs to turn to as youngsters Callum Braley and Henry Purdy join Mark Atkinson, who makes his first appearance this calendar year after injury.
Gloucester: Tom Marshall, Charlie Sharples, Henry Trinder, Billy Twelvetrees, Jonny May, Billy Burns, Willi Heinz (c); Paddy McAllister, Richard Hibbard, Josh Hohneck, Tom Savage, Jeremy Thrush, Ross Moriarty, Jacob Rowan, Ben Morgan
Replacements: Motu Matu’u, Yann Thomas, John Afoa, Mariano Galarza, Lewis Ludlow, Callum Braley, Mark Atkinson, Henry Purdy
Cardiff also haven’t held back in sending out a first choice XV, as the competition enters the business stage, recalling Welsh international trio Gethin Jenkins, Sam Warburton and Lloyd Williams to the starting line-up in tactical moves, while Fa’ao Filise is selected in place of the injured Anton Peikrishvili.
It’s the King of Tonga’s first start since Treviso in February, and a further worry is that he has only played more than 40 minutes once since the start of December. With Keiron Assiratti set to make his debut off the bench it may be wise to avoid throwing a teenager in at the deep end with a half of rugby at Kingsholm, even with a successful Wales U20 campaign under his belt.
After his standout Six Nations display, Warburton comes into the blindside flanker berth to go directly up against Team Wales colleague Moriarty in what is sure to be a battle for the ages. If Sam can do what he did to CJ Stander last month, along with Nick Williams getting the better of Ben Morgan, then the back row bout should go Cardiff’s way.
There will be questions asked of Lloyd Williams starting ahead of namesake Tomos after the latter’s two-try man of the match performance in Leinster last week, but I back Danny Wilson’s decision to opt for the experience. That is, along as he’s not afraid to utilise Tomos early if required. Lloyd has excellent game management, but his younger colleague has the X Factor to break a defence when necessary.
Other team selection areas to mention are the back three staying the same as last week, due to Tom James not being deemed fit enough to make the matchday squad, while Ellis Jenkins is also missing presumably due to his return from a head injury maybe not going as well as hoped last week.
As a result Aled Summerhill steps up onto the bench, where he is joined by Sion Bennett and Macauley Cook who will cover the loose five forwards between them.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Steve Shingler, Blaine Scully, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams; Gethin Jenkins (c), Kristian Dacey, Taufa’ao Filise, George Earle, Jarrad Hoeata, Sam Warburton, Josh Navidi, Nick Williams
Replacements: Matthew Rees, Corey Domachowski, Kieron Assiratti, Macauley Cook, Sion Bennett, Tomos Williams, Willis Halaholo, Aled Summerhill
Now is not the team to be delving into or criticising any team selection though, it’s the time to back our boys. With around 1,000 Cardiff fans heading up to Gloucester it is bound to be a seriously good atmosphere at Kingsholm, and hopefully we can spur the team on to a famous victory.
The season has largely plodded along for now with more lows than highs, but now is the time for the players to step up. The talk has been talked this week about it being a special game, about intensity lifts and matches that everyone wants to be involved in. Saturday at 8pm is when to turn the words into action.
This group of players are good enough to win on Saturday, I don’t think anyone doubts that, but they need to believe it themselves to make it happen. They should take great confidence from a game that should have been won in Leinster, and the fact they are the underdogs means there is no huge pressure on them.
They can go out and play how they want. With pace in attack and discipline in defence. Accuracy will be key, no question about that, so if we can make less errors and win the collisions then the game will be in our hands. Leaders will need to step up and youngsters will need to play up.
I have faith, all 1,000 of us going will have faith. It’s kind of the unwritten rule of being a Cardiff rugby fan, blind optimism. I just hope the players reward those of us withstanding The Shed for 80 minutes and give us a performance to be proud of. COME ON CARDIFF!!
Gloucester form: LWLLW
Cardiff form: LWWLL
Gloucester top points scorer: Greg Laidlaw (118)
Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (196)
Gloucester top try scorer: Matt Scott (13)
Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)
Pascal Gauzere (FFR) – With a growing reputation in the game, Mr Gauzere officiated the Scotland v Italy game in the recent Six Nations. He has refereed Cardiff on five occasions resulting in four wins, most recently against Bristol in October, although he did sin bin both Matthew Morgan and Gethin Jenkins.
There is another familiar face amongst the officials as Alexandre Ruiz will run one line, the same Mr Ruiz who sin binned Kirby Myhill and sent off George Earle at Bath. Fingers crossed for some kinder decisions this time!