Cardiff Blues meet Section Paloise, better known as Pau, in the European Challenge Cup semi-finals at Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday for a place in the Bilbao Final next month.
Although supporters will be familiar with Pau courtesy of our double header against them in the Challenge Cup pool stage last season, we will probably have to admit that we are not as up to speed with them as were with Edinburgh in the quarter-finals.
Before getting in to the analysis of how they play, let’s have a look at how this season has gone for them generally.
Pau currently sit seventh in the Top14, two points adrift of the final play-off spot, and subsequently Champions Cup qualification, with two games left of the regular season. Such is the competitiveness of the league though, they are just eight points off second, although they are well clear of any potential danger.
Just five of Pau’s 14 league wins this season have come on the road, as is fairly par of the course for the French league, however they did win all three away games in the Challenge Cup pool stage on the way to topping their pool with a 100% record. Gloucester, Agen and Zebre all soundly beaten en route to the quarter-finals.
Once into the knockout stages they received home advantage against fellow Top14 side Stade Francais, storming into an early lead and then holding off a second half comeback to win 35-32 at the Stade du Hameau.
However, that victory has been swiftly followed by back-to-back defeats while Cardiff Blues were in South Africa, falling away to Bordeaux with a 19-18 scoreline, before being beaten 22-33 by 11th place Agen at home last weekend.
There have been plenty of questions this week about what sort of Pau side we should expect to travel to Cardiff on Saturday because, although they are one of the lesser known French sides, they retain their fair share of overseas talent.
Steffon Armitage, Ireland’s Dave Foley, Wallaby Ben Mowen, Lourens Adriaanse of the Springboks and Fijians Jule Vatabua and Watisoni Votu are all amongst their ranks, while ex-All Blacks Tom Taylor, Colin Slade, Frank Halai, Benson Stanley and, most famous of all, Conrad Smith are members of the squad.
Cast your mind back to Cardiff Blues 27-12 win over Pau at the Arms Park last season though, and you’ll only recall Mowen being present that October night. Conrad Smith wasn’t even registered in the European squad!
Now that Pau have become a more settled Top14 outfit however, they have included more of their star names in Challenge Cup action this season, with at least five of the players listed above being used in every European starting XV so far. Smith only has one appearance to his name though.
It was a surprise to see them go pretty much fully loaded in their defeat to Agen last weekend, but it’s possible that they may have been mirroring Danny Wilson’s approach with Cardiff Blues and ensuring the first team were match ready ahead of Saturday’s encounter.
Whoever they pick will be a tough outfit to play against though, and that is because the playing style largely remains the same no matter which personnel they have on the field. When describing the tactics, power would be the operative word.
It’s not a particularly complicated game plan but, in the same way as when we’ve played Lyon and Toulouse earlier in the season, if you don’t get your defensive organisation, and most importantly your mindset, spot on, then you can quickly find yourself on the back foot.
The extra dimension that the French sides have from a simple pick-and-drive game though, as evidenced in the last clip, is that old French flair showing itself in the form of offloads. With a high skill level, the Top14 is rife with miracle offloads, and it can quickly turn a slow phase into a dangerous attack.
It’s not just the forwards who bring that power side to the game though.
With the likes of Fijian international Jule Vatubua and All Blacks Benson Stanley and Conrad Smith in the midfield ranks, Pau rely heavily on their centres to get go forward ball, and even score, as in the third clip.
However, such is the quality of the centres though, that they can’t just be tied down to a one dimensional carrying game, especially off first phase play.
The defence in the first clip is so drawn in by the man on the crash ball line, that they leave themselves a lot of work to do in the wide channels, eventually conceding a try in the right hand corner, while similarly the defence leaves the inside shoulder un-guarded in the second clip.
However, it’s the third clip that’s interesting in terms of who is the catalyst for the break.
Steffon Armitage has been an almost ever-present in the Pau back row this season, and is playing some of the best rugby of his careers.
Now at 32 years old, Armitage has all the experience of playing over 150 games for Toulon, and is very much in the mould of Josh Navidi as a number eight in terms of not being the traditional size of an eight, but makes up for that in an uncanny ability to make yards courtesy of raw power and the balance of a winger.
Also a danger in defence, particularly over the ball, it will be an intriguing battle between Armitage, who has been tipped for an England call many times over the last few years despite playing overseas, and Navidi, Nick Williams and Ellis Jenkins.
As well as Armitage, there is another player to keep an eye on, and he’s also not one of the big Southern Hemisphere names.
Thibault Daubagna has been first choice scrum-half at Pau throughout the season, and having watched a few games from recent weeks, it is clear that he is the catalyst for a lot of the side’s good attacking work.
At just 23, and without any international experience, he has a good understanding of the game and when to inject pace to the attack. As with the two breaks in the clips above, when he goes at the right time he is very difficult to stop.
With Pau’s power-based attacking game they tend to play off the scrum-half more often than not, and the range of passes he has for ball carriers to run on to is quite impressive. The Cardiff Blues fringe defence will need to be switched on to Daubagna at all times.
However, as with Edinburgh in the quarter-final, there is a weakness in Pau’s defence that we have the firepower to take advantage of.
Of the last five games that Pau have played, over 70% of their tries conceded have either been scored in the wide channels, or come directly from breaks manufactured out wide.
The reason for this seems to be two-fold. Firstly, a very narrow defensive line operated against French opposition in response to the Top14 trait of largely relying on one-up carriers to make yards, and secondly, a preference to drop the far-side winger into the back field to cover any kicks and prepare to counter-attack.
What that can end up with, is a defensive line that looks like this.
The three midfield defenders have a massive area to cover, and with a fly-half fairly close to the gain line, it means that he opens up options both outside, where the winger can be seen on the left of the screen coming up to try and cover the space, and on the inside where the initial defence are struggling to get across and cover.
As long as the fly-half makes the right decision on distribution there are big gains to be made, which Clermont do with ease.
Finally, Pau also have a knack of conceding tries down the short side of the field.
Two fairly soft tries to concede, and knowing that Cardiff Blues have a penchant for switching to blindside attacks when the 10/15 axis split to each sides of the breakdown, it could well be an area to exploit for us on Saturday, courtesy of the firepower we possess in our back line.
Whichever way you look at it though, Saturday will be a massively tough fixture for Danny Wilson’s men, who will have to really front up in the physical battle, as well as always being aware of the threat that a Pau side packed with international quality can pose out wide.
However, there is nothing that should phase this Cardiff Blues team. Our form has been superb, both as a team and individually, we have a team packed with match winners, a balance of young talent and experienced heads, a confidence in our own ability, and a commitment to put everything into the jersey for 80 minutes.
Another European Challenge Cup Final? Why not! Come on Cardiff!