In a bizarre turn of events in the world of Cardiff Blues, a rugby match will actually break out this week, and an important one at that, as the team travel to Paris to take on Stade Francais in the semi-finals of the Champions Cup play-offs.
A win on Friday evening will set up an away game at either Northampton or Connacht for the 20th spot an next year’s European top table but, make no mistake, this is not the back door to the Champions Cup and whoever the play-off winner is will have thoroughly earned their spot in the main event.
The win over Newport Gwent Dragons in our last game of the Pro12 season confirmed seventh spot, which, from next season, will be good enough to qualify for the Champions Cup. However this year we have to make do with a trip to France.
Our recent French history is not too bad, with wins over Pau and Grenoble either side of a narrow loss in Montpellier making up our last three visits, while the last time we were in Paris saw a 20-26 victory against Racing 92 back in November 2011, however the gap between the top French sides and Cardiff has widened dramatically in terms of budget.
Stade Francais are certainly towards the top end of the Top14 money table, despite being currently up for sale, and can count superstars of the world game such as Will Genia, Morne Steyn, Sergio Parisse and Rabah Slimani amongst their sizeable ranks.
Despite this they only finished seventh in the Top14, three points behind city rivals Racing. There’s no doubt that a proposed amalgamation with their Paris counterparts, and subsequent player strike, has disrupted part of their season, but since that was taken off the table they seem to have benefited from an upturn in form.
That came to a head last week as they defeated Gloucester in the Challenge Cup Final at Murrayfield to win Europe’s second competition for the first time in their history.
A dominant scrum performance was certainly the basis to that, as well as some exciting individual back play, saw them win 25-17 in a result that sums up their season of a well functioning attack but a struggling defence.
Head Coach Gonzalo Quesada has made eight changes to the starting lineup from last week’s Final, with a number of more familiar names to those not so interested in Top14 rugby missing out.
In the forwards we see French international tighthead Rabah Slimani drop down to cover loosehead on the bench, with Paul Alo-Emile taking his place. South African international Willem Alberts starts ahead of Hugh Pyle in the second row, while French youngster Matthieu Ugena starts at openside in place of Jono Ross, who is amongst the replacements.
Behind them we see a half-back change as Australian international Will Genia is not involved at all, the experienced Julien Dupuy replacing him, and South African Morne Steyn swaps places from the bench with Jules Plisson. Steyn’s national counterpart Meyer Bosman comes in at 12 ahead of Geoffrey Doumayrou, Sekou Macalou comes in for Djibril Camara on the wing, while Jeremy Sinzelle gets the nod at full-back over Hugo Bonneval.
It’s a 6-2 split on the Stade bench with only fly-half Plisson and scrum-half Clement Daguin providing backs cover, although Rabah Slimani could come on for any player at any time, and leave the field at any point too. They have very mysterious head injuries in Paris, that’s for sure.
Stade Francais: Jeremy Sinzelle, Waisea Nayacalevu, Jonathan Danty, Meyer Bosman, Sekou Macalou, Morne Steyn, Julien Dupuy; Heinke van der Merwe, Remi Bonfils, Paul Alo-Emile, Willem Alberts, Paul Gabrillagues, Antoine Burban, Matthieu Ugena, Sergio Parisse (c)
Replacements: Laurent Panis, Rabah Slimani, Giorgi Melikidze, Mathieu De Giovani, Raphael Lakafia, Clement Daguin, Jules Plisson, Jono Ross
Danny Wilson meanwhile has made three changes from the team that won in Caerphilly against NGD, with Rhys Gill, Josh Navidi and Tom James all now fit enough to start again.
Corey Domachowki, Sion Bennett and Rhun Williams all drop down to the bench, where they are joined by Anton Peikrishvili returning to cover his more natural tighthead side, Kirby Myhill back to hooker cover and Seb Davies coming into the second row replacement slot.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Tom James, Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams; Rhys Gill, Matthew Rees, Taufa’ao Filise, Jarrad Hoeata, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins (c), Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Corey Domachowski, Anton Peikrishvili, Seb Davies, Sion Bennett, Tomos Williams, Steven Shingler, Rhun Williams
It’s a strong Cardiff Blues team, with only three of the starting XV currently without a full international cap, and after two weeks off they may be fresher than a Stade Francais side that certainly enjoyed celebrating their Challenge Cup win in Edinburgh and at the Paris 7s last week.
However, make no mistake, this will be up there with the toughest games we have played all season. Despite the changes made, Stade’s pack will take some beating at both the set piece and the breakdown, and with Cardiff’s record at both of these being distinctly dodgy, we could be in for a long night if things don’t go well.
Matthew Rees will need to be at his imperious best in the scrum, while Nick Williams must keep Sergio Parisse occupied to allow Ellis Jenkins to get on with what he does best.
If the forwards can provide a platform the onus will then fall on the half-backs, particularly Gareth Anscombe, to prove their class and offer more of a cutting edge than we saw at Caerphilly last time out.
This could well be the last game of the season as we are now in straight knockout mode, so let’s go and give it 100% effort for 80 minutes, and leave the field with no regrets and a positivity to take either into the play-off final, or the summer break. Come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff Blues record v Stade Francais: W 1 L 1
Stade Francais form: WLWWL
Cardiff Blues form: WWWDL
Stade Francais top try scorer: Waisea Nayacalevu (7)
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Tom James (7)
Stade Francais top points scorer: Jules Plisson (143)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Steve Shingler (209)
Greg Garner (RFU) – The feeling of your heart dropping can be accurately summed up as ‘when you see Greg Garner is refereeing your team’s next game’. Started refereeing in 2008, he has officiated Cardiff five times with just a solitary. He stands out for one game, in Nice against Toulon in 2014, where he awarded the hosts 20 penalties and sin binned four of our players. Let’s say there were a few swear words shouted. Here’s hoping for a better showing on Friday.
Remember that this game will kick off at the ridiculous hour of 5pm British time, and will be shown live yn Gymraeg only on S4C.