The 2017/18 European Challenge Cup gets underway this weekend as 2010 champions Cardiff Blues host the current Top14 leaders Lyon at the Arms Park.
After six tough Pro14 rounds to start the season, culminating in last week’s Welsh derby victory over Dragons at home, it’s a welcome re-focus on European competition, somewhere Cardiff has an impressive history in the 22 years that continental action has been going on for.
It won’t be an easy two weeks by any means though, with Cardiff Blues being dealt a tough hand of pool opponents despite being in the second tier competition. Lyon are the Top14 pace setters, Sale are an established Aviva Premiership side, and Toulouse are giants of the European game.
First off are the team from France’s third largest city, who are now proving their worth in the French top tier after six years of flicking back and forth between the Top14 and ProD2.
Some superb results for Lyon, winning away at Stade Francais and Racing 92, have seen them return six victories and a single defeat from there opening seven games to lead the way by three points.
Those years spent floundering in the lower leagues mean that an unusual event will take place on Friday night, as Cardiff face a side for the first time ever. Lyon’s visit to the famous Cardiff Arms Park will be their first in a 111-year history.
They bring a much-changed side from that which beat Agen last weekend though, living up to the stereotype that French sides do not take the Challenge Cup seriously. Only scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud and winger Timilau Rokoduru remain in the starting XV.
Despite that they are still able to name a side packed with international and domestic experience though, such is the depth provided by a budget far exceeding that which the Cardiff Blues work off.
Tornike Matardze is a Georgian international prop, hooker Deon Fourie and lock Etienne Oosthuizen have extensive Super Rugby experience, fellow lock Francois van der Merwe has been a familiar name on the Racing 92 teamsheet for a number of years, while full-back Delon Armitage is an English international.
Off the bench they can also call on Georgia U20 prop Guram Papidze and French cap Jean-Marcelin Buttin.
Lyon: Delon Armitage, Timilau Rokoduru, Pierre-Louis Barassi, Adrien Seguret, Jone Tuva, Pietro Dominguez, Baptiste Couilloud; Tornike Matardaze, Deon Fourie, Richard Choirat, Etienne Oosthuizen, Francois van der Merwe (c), Tanginoa Halaifonua, Virgile Bruni, Theophile Cotte
Replacements: Virgile Lacombe, Guram Papidze, Josh Bekhuis, Felix Lambey, Theo Belan, Jean-Marcelin Buttin, Jonathan Pélissié
Similarly to the French side, Danny Wilson has also chosen to rotate the Cardiff Blues starting XV, making ten changes to the starting side which defeated Dragons last week.
A new front row of Corey Domachowski, Matthew Rees and Dillon Lewis start at the front of the pack, while George Earle joins Seb Davies in the engine room, and Josh Turnbull and Macauley Cook start alongside Olly Robinson in the back row.
In the backs Tomos Williams and Garyn Smith join Jarrod Evans and Rey Lee-Lo in the three-quarter line, while Blaine Scully starts on the left wing and Matthew Morgan replaces the injured Rhun Williams.
On the bench it’s good to see Anton Peikrishvili set to make his first appearance of the season after returning from injury.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Garyn Smith, Blaine Scully, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Corey Domachowski, Matthew Rees (c), Dillon Lewis, George Earle, Seb Davies, Macauley Cook, Olly Robinson, Josh Turnbull
Replacements: Kristian Dacey, Brad Thyer, Anton Peikrishvili, James Down, Josh Navidi, Lewis Jones, Steven Shingler, Aled Summerhill
Bringing in Domachowski, Rees and Earle certainly offers an idea of how Wilson intends to try and match Lyon up front, while the young 9/10/12 combo of Tomos, Evans and Smith shows a willingness to play with ball-in-hand.
This could well be key, as Lyon will be very dangerous on the counter attack and ready to take advantage of any loose kicking, while Blaine Scully will have to have a big game in terms of covering Matthew Morgan in defence and under the high ball.
Personally I would have preferred to see more continuity in the squad to allow us to build momentum from last week’s win, however this week’s selection does go to underline the fact that we can retain some form of strength in depth within the squad.
With some big Pro14 games to come after the European fixtures it’s a good chance for some players to stake a claim for more league minutes, as well as help us challenge in a tricky pool, and possibly give the Arms Park faithful a cup run that is always enjoyed, second tier competition or not.
Remember the earlier 7pm kick-off and get down to CAP for what will hopefully be another famous European night under the Arms Park lights. Come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff Blues record v Lyon: Never played
Cardiff Blues form: LLWLW
Lyon form: LWWWW
Cardiff Blues top try scorers: Willis Halaholo, Tom James (2)
Lyon top scorer: Alexis Palisson (4)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (36)
Lyon top points scorer: Lionel Beauxis (61)
Frank Murphy (IRE) – The former Connacht, Munster and Leicester scrum-half was at the Arms Park just a few weeks ago for the defeat at home to Glasgow, while he also officiated Zebre’s visit last year. Just his second ever European game as a referee.