There was a certain inevitably to the European Challenge Cup pool draws on Thursday, as Cardiff Blues wound up in the toughest group, alongside Sale Sharks, Lyon and Toulouse.
From the moment Ieuan Evans and Austin Healey selected the English side to join Cardiff in pool two, it seemed set in stone that things would only get worse as either some incredibly tricky trips to Russia or the European giants of Stade Toulousain awaited.
Fortunately pool one (NGD, Newcastle, Bordeaux, Enisei) and pool four (SF Paris, Edinburgh, London Irish, Krasny Yar) picked up the Eastern Europeans, while pool three (Agen, Gloucester, Pau, Zebre) and pool five (Brive, Connacht, Oyonnax, Worcester) generally became quite tame in their setups.
Toulouse did join us and will renew a rivalry that stretches back to the inaugural Heineken Cup Final back in 1996, through back-to-back quarter-finals in 2008 and 2009, before pool stage rivalries in 2010.
So, in another twist to the bizarre tale that is supporting the Cardiff Blues, we end up with what has been entitled the ‘pool of death’.
In rugby playing terms it was probably not exactly what Danny Wilson wanted, with the main focus once again on trying to return to competitiveness in the top half of the Pro12. Add in the current financial climate, with the threat of players leaving lingering and a sparse coaching staff, and six tough games isn’t particularly warmly welcomed.
Despite being the ‘pool of death’ though, there is something eminently winnable about each fixture with French sides being well known for not taking the Challenge Cup seriously, look at last season’s continental opponents of Pau not even selecting Conrad Smith in their European squad.
Toulouse will be desperate to return to the business end of the Top14, and although they may well fancy some silverware, the league will be their main target. Lyon too will prioritise the league, having only been down in the ProD2 as recently as 2015/16, while the French sides generally do not travel well in their own country, let alone Europe.
Sale will be a slightly different proposition, as the English sides tend to compete slightly better in the Challenge Cup, but having tasted Champions Cup rugby last season Sale will also be looking first to Aviva Premiership success. All three sides will have depth that we can only dream of though, and will provide stern tests.
Wilson will also be acutely aware of how the Challenge Cup contributed to most of the memorable aspects of last season, and how it positively impacted on Pro12 performance, the game against Gloucester being a prime example as 55 minutes of competitiveness gave the team confidence to finish the season with a four-game unbeaten run.
In business terms Chief Executive Richard Holland and his fellow members of the senior management will be pleased, firstly to avoid organising a trip to Russia, and also to secure a big tie against Toulouse, as well as the Anglo-Welsh Sale game. There’s certainly more ticket sales opportunities than against Pau, for example.
For the fans the ‘pool of death’ doubles as the ‘pool of glamour’. Greater Manchester might be a slight exception, although it will be a new ground to visit for many, but two trips to the south of France are not to be sniffed at and I’m sure there will be a vocal travelling support as ever.
Despite everything about the toughest group, and focusing on the Pro12 though, there’s always an underlying expectation that Cardiff will compete in Europe. From that Heineken Cup Final in 1996 to the Amlin Cup win in 2010 there was 15 years of continental success, which has been sadly lacking in recent times.
There’s still something very special about a European night at the Cardiff Arms Park, while the passion of travelling support has not waned. The history of the club is linked with playing in the biggest games, and to do that in the Challenge Cup a team realistically has to qualify for the quarter-final.
European success is not make-or-break when it comes to analysing whether 2017/18 has been a successful season, but if we can look back on our Challenge Cup campaign with pride and some good away trips to remember, it will certainly be a positive. Come on Cardiff!!
Last season – 10th in Aviva Premiership, 4th in Champions Cup pool
Previous meeting – Cardiff Blues 26-14 Sale Sharks, January 2013
Famous game(s) – Sale 21-11 Cardiff, August 1998. The first game of the rebel season.
Players leaving – Mike Phillips, Sam Tuitupou, Sam Bedlow, Matt Rogerson, Brian Mujati, Neil Briggs, James Mitchell, Andrew Hughes, Charlie Ingall, Tim Jeffers, Magnus Lund, Jonathan Mills, Tom Morton, Dan Mugford, Peter Stringer
Players arriving – Josh Strauss, Will Cliff, Marc Jones, Alexandru Tarus, Jono Ross, WillGriff John, Faf de Klerk
Last season – 10th in Top14, 2nd in Challenge Cup pool (didn’t qualify for knockouts)
Previous meeting – Never played
Famous game(s) – Never played
Players leaving – Thibaut Privat, Julien Bonnaire, Franck Romanet, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Nisie Huyard, Maselino Paulino, Sami Mavinga, Romain Loursac, Guillaume Galletier, Nicolas Durand, Cameron Njewel, Curtis Browning, Ti’i Paulo, Zaza Navrozashvili, Paul Bonneford, Napolioni Nalaga
Players arriving – Jean-Marcelin Buttin, Virgile Lacombe, Theophile Cotte, Clement Ric, Piero Dominguez, Lionel Beauxis, Xavier Mignot, Maxime Granouillet, Francois van der Merwe, Etienne Oosthuizen, Richard Choirat, Jonathan Pelissie, Hendrik Roodt, Timilai Rokoduru, Alexis Plisson
Last season – 12th in Top14, lost in Champions Cup quarter-final
Previous meeting – Toulouse 23-7 Cardiff Blues, December 2009
Famous game(s) – Toulouse 21-18 Cardiff (aet), January 2006, the inaugural Heineken Cup final. Cardiff Blues 9-6 Toulouse, April 2009, Heineken Cup quarter-final.
Players leaving – Christopher Tolofua, Yacouba Camara, Census Johnston, Samuel Marques, Vasil Kakovin, Gregory Lamboley, Thierry Dusautoir, Luke McAlister, Toby Flood, Alexis Palisson
Players arriving – Louis-Benoit Madaule, Antoine Dupont, Zack Holmes, Charlie Faumuina, Lucas Pointud, Cheslin Kolbe, Baptiste Mouchous