The European Challenge Cup pool stage comes to a conclusion this weekend as Cardiff Blues travel to France for the second time in the competition to face Lyon at the Stade Gerland.
After the famous victory over Toulouse last week, the pool two top spot has been sewn up and a quarter-final is secured. However, despite being a pool winner, that knockout game will be on the road unless we beat Lyon with a bonus-point and Connacht lose at home to whipping boys Oyonnax.
We will have to then wait until after our game on Saturday evening for the result of Stade Francais facing Edinburgh in Paris for confirmation of who our quarter-final opponent will be. The likelihood is that it will either be Edinburgh themselves, or Connacht.
Before that though there is a game to be getting on with, and a win would be a superb way to round off what has been a very successful pool stage. To get out of what is undoubtedly the Challenge Cup’s pool of death is a serious achievement, and to finish with a record of won five and lost one would be the icing on the cake.
It won’t be easy though, as Lyon are still in the hunt for a quarter-final spot themselves, albeit needing some unlikely results. They would require a bonus point win against Cardiff Blues along with a hefty points difference improvement, as well as hoping a few teams elsewhere fail to win.
Even with only a small possibility of qualification though, they will still be looking to finish their Challenge a Cup campaign on a high in front of their home fans and take some momentum back into their league season.
It’s a Top14 season that has somewhat stalled for Lyon since they visited Cardiff Arms Park back in October as league leaders. Just two wins in eight games means they have slipped down to seventh place.
It’s the home form that has let them down, with French sides usually struggling to win away games. Defeats at the Stade Gerland to Toulouse and La Rochelle have been confidence knockers, while they’ve suffered heavy away losses to Clermont, Toulon and Montpellier.
In response to that, Lyon head coach Matthieu Lazerges has opted for a strong 23 in a bid to get the season back on track. Up front, experienced South Africans Francois van der Merwe and Hendrik Roodt pack down in the second row, with Samoan international Taiasina Tuifu’a behind them at number eight.
Half-back pairing Freddie Michalak and Lionel Beauxis share 97 French caps between them, while there is further experience at full-back through Jean-Marcellin Buttin, and on the right wing thanks to familiar face Delon Armitage, who won 26 England caps during 10 years at London Irish.
On the bench they can call on French internationals Alexandre Menini at prop and Alexis Palisson in the back three, while former Auckland Blue Josh Bekhuis provides lock cover.
Lyon: Jean-Marcellin Buttin, Delon Armitage, Pierre-Louis Barassi, Thibaut Regard, Jone Tuva, Lionel Beauxis, Frédéric Michalak; Stéphane Clement, Virgile Lacombe, Clément Ric, Francois van der Merwe, Hendrik Roodt, Dylan Cretin, Theophile Cotte, Tai Tuifua
Replacements: Enzo Pakihivatau, Alexandre Menini, Richard Choirat, Tanginoa Halaifonua, Josh Bekhuis, Alexis Palisson, Theo Belan, Jonathan Pélissié
Cardiff Blues meanwhile have made six changes, with Danny Wilson opting to rest a number of faces after a long and testing block of fixtures stretching back to late November.
Fa’ao Filise is left at home with Dillon Lewis starting at tighthead alongside Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins in the front row. George Earle has picked up a knock so Damian Welch joins Josh Turnbull in the second row and Nick Williams is given a week off so Macauley Cook comes in at blindside and Josh Navidi shifts to number eight.
In the backs it’s Lloyd Williams who gets the nod to start at scrum-half, while Rey Lee-Lo joins Garyn Smith in the centre as Willis Halaholo takes an opportunity to have a small knee operation. Owen Lane gets a week off in the back three as Blaine Scully makes a return to action on the wing.
On the bench there are returns for Kirby Myhill and Scott Andrews as front row cover, James Down is the lock replacement and Olly Robinson returns to offer a back row option. There is also a timely return to fitness for Rhun Williams as the Six Nations approaches.
Cardiff Blues: Gareth Anscombe, Alex Cuthbert, Garyn Smith, Rey Lee-Lo, Blaine Scully, Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams; Gethin Jenkins (c), Matthew Rees, Dillon Lewis, Damian Welch, Josh Turnbull, Macauley Cook, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Brad Thyer, Scott Andrews, James Down, Olly Robinson, Tomos Williams, Steve Shingler, Rhun Williams
Despite the injured and rested players it’s still a Cardiff Blues team more than capable of getting a result. A good mix of experience and potential up front, international quality in the loose forwards, and a back line with the exciting 10/15 axis of Anscombe and Evans sprinkled with two international wingers and a solid centre partnership.
Encouragingly there are still options off the bench, with Olly Robinson having proved the impact he can make, while Steve Shingler was superb in a 20-minute performance against Toulouse last week.
Although the fact that we have already qualified for the quarter-finals shouldn’t lead to Cardiff Blues taking the game easy, hopefully the players can relax into playing some fast and expansive rugby, with a license to express themselves and take the game to Lyon.
Going into a two-week Angli-Welsh Cup break it would be great to have a positive performance before the senior players get a break ahead of the fixture block that will take us through to the end of the international window.
Let’s lay down a marker for the rest of the season, come on Cardiff!
Lyon form: WLWLL
Cardiff Blues form: WWLLW
Lyon top try scorer: Alexis Palisson (5)
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Matthew Morgan (5)
Lyon top points scorer: Lionel Beauxis (123)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (79)
Matthew Carley (ENG) – Has never refereed Cardiff Blues in a first team competition before. Ospreys fans will remember him as the man who officiated their quarter-final against Stade Francais last season. Fair to say they weren’t happy with him.