It may be in European rugby’s second tier competition, and it may be on a Sunday evening at 5.30pm, but make no mistake about it, this edition of Cardiff Blues v Toulouse is still a massive occasion.
We are now at the business end of the Challenge Cup pool stages, and Cardiff Blues currently sit top of pool two with two rounds remaining. A win at the Arms Park on Sunday would result in the home side securing top spot with a game to go.
However, just finishing first in the pool is not good enough for a home quarter-final under the current competition structure. With Cardiff Blues currently the lowest seeded pool leaders, we would be set for a knockout game on the road unless we gather two wins and hope for a favour elsewhere.
Before even thinking about that though, we’ve got to overcome Toulouse in a European battle that goes back to the very first Heineken Cup Final in 1996. That day, 22 years ago last weekend, it was the French side who came out on top thanks to a highly contested penalty at the end of extra-time.
Since then we have met again in European action, in three successive seasons from 2008/09 to 2010/11. A semi-final defeat in 2009 was followed up with a quarter-final victory in 2010, before there were two home wins in the 2010/11 Heineken Cup pool stages.
There was subsequently a gap of nearly seven years until we met again at the Stade Ernest-Wallon back in October when tries from Nick Williams and Macauley Cook helped secure a superb 15-17 victory.
Following that game they have struggled in the Top14, slipping from second to fifth after winning just three of eight games, although such is the competitiveness of the league they could drop down to eighth after just one loss.
The last three weeks have been promising for Toulouse despite just the solitary win though. Narrow defeats to Racing 92 and Pau have both resulted in losing bonus points, and have come either side of a home win against big spending Toulon.
Expected defeats on the road, with away wins in France rarer than a correct refereeing decision in the Pro14, which is a theme continued in Europe as Toulouse traded home wins with Lyon during December, leaving them third in the pool before this weekend’s action.
Knowing only a win will really keep their knockout qualification hopes alive though, Toulouse have brought a strong side over to Cardiff, with no less than 12 internationals in their matchday squad.
Coming into the side after last week’s loss to Pau is French capped fly-half Jean-Marc Doussain, Fijian flanker Semi Kunatani and Scotland and British and Irish Lion Richie Gray amongst others.
Such is the depth within the squad that the French side can afford to leave star scrum-half Antoine Dupont on the bench, along with Samoans Paul Perez and Piula Fa’asalele.
Toulouse: Thomas Ramos, Cheslin Kolbe, Jarrod Poi, Gael Fickou, Sofiane Guitoune, Jean-Marc Doussain, Sébastien Bézy; Clément Castets, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Charlie Faumuina, Florian Verhaeghe, Richie Gray, Semi Kunatani, Louis Madaule, Joe Tekori
Replacements: David Roumieu, Maxime Duprat, Piula Faasalele, Carl Axtens, Rynhardt Elstadt, Antoine Dupont, Paul Perez, Maks Van Dyk
Danny Wilson, meanwhile, has made a number of changes to the side which lost to Ospreys last week, including bring back the 114-year-old front row of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Fa’ao Filise. A combined 526 Cardiff Blues appearances between them.
Elsewhere we see George Earle and Ellis Jenkins recalled amongst the forwards, while Tomos Williams and Garyn Smith are named in the backs, and Jarrod Evans has shaken off illness to take his place in the team this week.
On the bench there is room for Brad Thyer, Macauley Cook, Steve Shingler and Blaine Scully.
Cardiff Blues: Gareth Anscombe, Alex Cuthbert, Garyn Smith, Willis Halaholo, Owen Lane, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Gethin Jenkins (c), Matthew Rees, Taufa’ao Filise, George Earle, Josh Turnbull, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kristian Dacey, Brad Thyer, Dillon Lewis, Damian Welch, Macauley Cook, Lloyd Williams, Steven Shingler, Blaine Scully
This is set to be another huge European occasion to grace the historic Cardiff Arms Park, despite the kick-off time, with both sides going all out to secure a win and make the last round of the pool stages a far more comfortable one.
The difficulty that French sides have in winning away should not be taken for granted by any means, and it will take a performance at least as good as that we saw at the Stade Ernest-Wallon back in October to do the double over Toulouse.
All the talk from the Toulouse camp this week has been geared towards a mobile side coming to play expansive rugby on the artificial pitch at CAP. This will be a marked change from the direct physicality shown by the Top14 team back in the first fixture.
In terms of the Cardiff Blues, the real key will be a clinical attack. After two weeks of struggling to fashion line breaks, the offensive side of our game will have to be spot on, as the expectation will be that try scoring chances will be few and far between.
After a week in which the club’s media team have worked so hard to get people to the ground, and supporters will have given up a Sunday evening to head to the game, it’s down to the players to put in a performance to be proud of.
I truly believe we are capable of winning, I just hope the players see it in themselves. Come on Cardiff!
Cardiff Blues form: LWWLL
Toulouse form: WLLWL
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Matthew Morgan (5)
Toulouse top try scorer: Antoine Dupont (5)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (74)
Toulouse top points scorer: Thomas Ramos (95)
Ian Tempest (ENG) – Has refereed Cardiff Blues on three occasions so far in his career. An away loss to Montpellier and a home win over Rovigo in the Challenge Cup, as well as another home victory against London Irish in the Anglo-Welsh Cup. Here’s hoping for no dodgy last-minute penalties!