When Cardiff Blues meet Pau at the Arms Park in the European Challenge Cup on Saturday, it’ll take a 23-man effort from whichever side is to come out on top and clinch a place in the Bilbao final.
However, as part of the team performance, winning individual battles across the field will be equally as important to both sides, and now the teams have been announced, we know that there are some very tasty one-on-ones from 1-15.
Here are the key areas where Cardiff Blues players will need to come out on top to give the side a chance of getting past the French team.
Anton Peikrishvili v Thomas Domingo
I think most Cardiff Blues supporters were slightly surprised to see Anton Peikrishvili’s name next to the number three jersey when the team was announced on Friday, with most expecting Dillon Lewis to get the nod, while I went all soppy and picked Fa’ao Filise in what could be his final Arms Park game.
It’s the 27-cap Georgia international who is selected though, for what will be just his 17th Cardiff Blues start in two seasons at the club.
Peikrishvili will go up against a loosehead in the scrum who has all the experience you could ask for at prop. Thomas Domingo has 36 French caps, and made 170 appearances in 11 years at Clermont Auvergne, before moving on to Pau at the start of this season.
Now 32 years old, he has been in a rock in a powerful Pau pack across the campaign, and Peikrishvili will have his work cut out if Cardiff Blues are going to compete at the set piece. Especially with John Lacey in charge.
Nick Williams v Steffon Armitage
Now this is probably the most highly anticipated of the individual battles across the field, as one of the best number eights in the Pro14, goes up against one of the best number eights in the Top14.
Big Nick has been the cornerstone of everything good about Cardiff Blues this season, offering a huge carrying presence, posting big tackle numbers, and sitting second in the Pro14 most turnovers list.
The Cardiff Blues win ratio when he is in the team, compared to when he isn’t, is stark, and in two seasons Williams has made himself one of the most important figures at the Arms Park.
On the opposite side of the scrum will be English international Steffon Armitage though who, since leaving London Irish for Toulon seven years ago, has been consistently one of the highest rated players in the Top14.
Not as physically imposing as Nick Williams, Armitage trades off being more mobile, combining the pace of an inside centre, with the power of a blindside flanker.
Add in being one of the best players over the ball in Europe, and the 32-year-old is an all-important member of this Pau team. Cardiff Blues can’t allow him a sniff at the breakdown, otherwise possession will be very difficult to hold on to.
Tomos Williams v Thibault Daubagna
Both teams will be looking to unleash the undoubted talent that are packed into the respective backlines on the plastic pitch at the Arms Park, and to do that they will be relying on their scrum-halves to offer the best ball available.
For Cardiff Blues, it has been the Williams’, Tomos and Lloyd, who have shared scrum-half duties this season, but Danny Wilson has opted for the pace and attacking prowess of Tomos to start on Saturday, meaning it’s the battle of the 23-year-olds in the nine jersey.
Tomos has made 27 appearances so far this season, appearing in every single Pro14 and European Challenge Cup game, and earning a call-up to the Wales Six Nations squad.
He will go up against Pau captain on the day, Thibault Daubagna, who has had a monopoly on the starting spot for the French side this season, holding off the talent of experienced French cap Julien Tomas.
Both players are livewires at scrum-half, keen on tap penalties and sniping runs, as well as bringing in players outside them where possible. However, it will likely to come down to who is able to control the tempo better for their respective sides.
Rey Lee-Lo v Conrad Smith
A lot of the media build-up this week has been focused on Willis Halaholo going up against his former Hurricanes mentor Conrad Smith, however in actual fact it will be Rey Lee-Lo who lines up directly opposite the 94-cap All Black.
Now 36 years old and in the twilight of his career, Smith is not quite the force he was when winning back-to-back World Cups, but he is still a high quality operator, and with all that experience, will be a major thorn in Cardiff Blues side.
Not just in attack, but also in defence, where the opposition’s 13 channel is so crucial to our attacking game. If we can manipulate that area of the field, it opens up a lot of avenues for our backs, but Smith will be the best game reader we have come up against this season.
Therefore, Lee-Lo will need to be on top form, as he has been across 19 starts this season, to get the better of a man who has been one of the best players in the world for 14 years.
Alex Cuthbert v Watisoni Votu
Saturday will be the last time, at least for now, that we see Alex Cuthbert run out at the Arms Park, ahead of the winger’s move to Exeter Chiefs at the end of the season.
After scoring his first try since October, after missing a few months due to injury, against Kings last weekend, Cuthbert will be looking to go out with a bang over the next few weeks, as he sits just four tries off 50 for the Cardiff Blues, and has critics outside of the Arms Park to prove wrong.
However, it may be his defensive performance, rather than his attacking exploits, that will be most important on Saturday, as he lines up opposite one of the in-form wingers in the Top14.
Watisoni Votu has 11 tries in 16 league games this season, and, although he has just turned 33, is in the form of his career. With the experience of spells at Exeter and Perpignan under his belt, as well as 13 international caps, he will be a worthy adversary for the big horse.