One of my favourite weeks of the year is upon us as the build-up to European rugby’s quarter-finals begins.
The best teams on the continent preparing to go to battle in knockout rugby, knowing just two wins will take them to a European final. The biggest stage in domestic rugby union. It’s difficult not to dream when this stage is reached.
For Cardiff Blues supporters it’s probably the most anticipated game in years, and for a good number of reasons.
Although the Champions Cup is the pinnacle of European rugby, the second tier Challenge Cup will always retain a special place in our hearts after that 2010 day in Marseille. A memorable day in the sun beating the superstars of Toulon.
That just added to a famous history in European competition, stretching back to the inaugural Heineken Cup Final back in 1995/96, and taking in memorable wins over Wasps in the rain, Toulon at home thanks to that Gareth Davies try and Toulouse in front of almost 40,000 at the Millennium Stadium.
Those days seemed a distance off at the start of the season though, when we started the campaign with three straight defeats, leaving us bottom of the Pro14’s Conference A table going into October.
The media went to town on the negativity, especially with Danny Wilson’s revelation he would be leaving at the end of the season. Cardiff Blues were branded as ‘in crisis’, and that pessimism infiltrated the terraces as supporters bemoaned some slow performances.
However, fast forward to this final block of fixtures of the season and it’s all change. Seven games unbeaten across the league and Europe, back-to-back bonus point wins, a new head coach for next season announced and positivity right across the supporter base.
Performances have vastly improved as young players have matured before our eyes. Seb Davies and Tomos Williams have earned Wales call-ups from second row and scrum-half, respectively. Garyn Smith has been a defensive rock at outside centre, and Jarrod Evans has grown into a future star outside-half.
Experienced heads have played their part too, as Gethin Jenkins has been imperious, George Earle has stepped up in the second row, Josh Turnbull has tackled every player in the league, and Lloyd Williams has guided the inexperience outside him superbly.
These last seven games, and particularly the last two resulting in try bonus points, have been huge confidence boosters. It can be heard in press conferences, felt as the players enter the field, and seen as they celebrate together at the end of the game.
There is a tightness to the playing group, a culture that we haven’t seen at the club in a long time. It all seems to come naturally to the young players in attack, but it’s that culture that breeds the attitude and commitment required to defend as superbly as we have in recent weeks.
With Danny Wilson and Matt Sherratt at the head of that currently, there’s an incentive to see them leave on a high, as well as the possibility of a number of long-serving and fan favourite players moving on for pastures new. A final goodbye in a European semi-final at the Arms Park with be more than fitting.
It would also be a reward for a fan-base that it’s fair to say have suffered in recent years. The odd excellent result has been very welcome, but we haven’t had proper success since David Young departed in 2011.
The atmosphere around the Arms Park has been superb in the last few weeks though, and it leads into a trip to Edinburgh that have been looking forward to since flying home from Lyon. Just over two months has been far too long to wait!
Last season’s jaunt up to Gloucester was an excellent day out, and for 60 minutes we were in dreamworld. If we can repeat that but for 80 minutes it would add to the long list of memorable Cardiff Blues trips, or start a new one for any younger fans attending.
With Edinburgh in equally good form it won’t be easy, but it should make for a superb game. I’m confident that we can come out on top and carry on this winning run though. I’m not ready to lose yet!
As it is my favourite week of the year it’s likely I’ll go over the top a bit with the build up this week, as we have a look at Edinburgh in recent weeks, what selection decisions face Danny Wilson, cast our minds back to Cardiff’s most memorable European knockout games and analyse the key head-to-head battles.
There will also be all the normal features, the Cardiff Rugby Life Podcast, the Opposition View and the match preview before kick-off, so keep an eye on here and @CardiffRugbyWeb over the next few days. Come on Cardiff!