For the first time since November 1997, European knockout rugby returns to the Arms Park this weekend as Pau arrive for the Challenge Cup semi-final, with a spot in the Bilbao final up for grabs.
Of course there have been plenty of notable knockout matches for Cardiff Blues in the meantime, with huge occasions against Toulouse and Leicester in the Millennium Stadium next door, as well as trips to Newcastle and Wasps on the road to Marseille in 2010.
However, the opportunity for this Cardiff Blues team to play in front of a packed out Cardiff Arms Park will be a very special event, and after a few years of little success, is a fine reward for us supporters who have stuck it out on the terraces on the cold Sunday afternoons and rainy Friday nights.
It is also richly deserved for this playing group and coaching team who, despite a myriad of off-field distractions, have pulled together superbly to play an exciting brand of attacking, and importantly winning, rugby that is based upon a passion and commitment to the jersey.
After 2018/19 Champions Cup qualification was secured last week in South Africa, the season is already an undoubted success, leaving anything else an added bonus, but there is no doubt that the Cardiff Blues will be totally focused on winning on Saturday to give Danny Wilson and Matt Sherratt the send-off they deserve.
They will be buoyed by the fact that Saturday’s opponents, full name Section Paloise but known as Pau, were dispatched twice in the pool stages last season, courtesy of a 27-12 home victory, and a narrow 21-22 win out in France.
However, the Pau we face on Saturday will be a lot different to the sides we saw last season, as they begin to take the Challenge Cup seriously with the competition approaching it’s final stages, Top14 status is confirmed for next season, and the final is just three hours across the border in Spain.
As a result, Pau head coach Simon Mannix, the former Wellington and Gloucester fly-half, has gone all out on his team selection. 11 of the starting XV are internationals, with three having played for New Zealand, and one a former Australia captain.
It is a slight surprise to see that, with Pau having named a full strength team in their Top14 defeat to Agen last week, but having come through the pool stages undefeated they are clearly keen to win a bit of silverware as well as challenge for the play-offs in the French league.
Up front they will anchor their scrum with French internationals Thomas Domingo and Malik Hamadache, while Springbok Lourens Adriaanse provides quality off the bench. Then behind them another French cap Julien Pierre will pack down with New Zealand Maori Daniel Ramsay, with Irish international Dave Foley set to come on in the second half.
Perhaps their greatest strength lies in the back row, where that Wallaby captain Ben Mowen is joined by England international Steffon Armitage, and former Munster openside Sean Dougall.
Into the backs, and Thibault Daubagna will lead the side from scrum-half, but he will not be joined at half-back by former New Zealand fly-half Colin Slade, who missed out through injury. Fortunately for them, Pau have another All Black waiting in the wings, as Tom Taylor wears the 10 jersey.
Outside him he can rely on the likes of Fijian internationals Jule Vatubua and Watisoni Votu, as well as another All Black Frank Halai, but it is the man starting at outside centre who is likely to attract the most attention.
Conrad Smith scored 26 tries in 94 New Zealand appearances over a stretch of 11 years, covering eight Rugby Championship and two World Cup wins, playing outside Dan Carter and Ma’aa Nonu as part of arguably the best three-quarter line ever seen.
He will now line-up on the ground where the three-quarter line as we know it now was invented, against the very team who invented it, just weeks before he will hang up his boots after a long and illustrious career.
Pau: Charly Malie, Frank Halai, Conrad Smith, Jale Vatubua, Watisoni Votu, Tom Taylor, Thibault Daubagna (c); Thomas Domingo, Quentin Lespiaucq Brettes, Malik Hamadache, Daniel Ramsay, Julien Pierre, Ben Mowen, Sean Dougall, Steffon Armitage
Subs: Lucas Rey, Ignacio Calles, Lourens Adriaanse, Dave Foley, Paddy Butler, Julien Tomas, Antoine Hastoy, Julien Fumat
Pau may well have a highly decorated All Black, but have they got the best loosehead prop to ever play the game though? No, because Gethin Jenkins returns to the Cardiff Blues starting XV on Saturday, where he will lead the team once again after signing a new one-year contract extension.
Danny Wilson has brought Gethin back as part of an all-change front row from that which beat Kings last week, as Kris Dacey returns from injury to start at hooker, while Anton Peikrishvili, who spent six years of his career playing in France, gets the nod at tighthead.
Behind them there is an unchanged loose five, while the only change in the backline sees Owen Lane return to his wing berth in place of Blaine Scully, as Alex Cuthbert starts at the Arms Park for the last time ahead of a summer move to Exeter Chiefs.
Cardiff Blues: Gareth Anscombe, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Owen Lane, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Gethin Jenkins (c), Kristian Dacey, Anton Peikrishvili, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Rhys Gill, Scott Andrews, Damian Welch, Olly Robinson, Lloyd Williams, Garyn Smith, Matthew Morgan
Saturday promises to be another titanic occasion between two quality packed teams at the famous Arms Park, where an electric atmosphere awaits as tickets become very hard to come by.
Hopefully the weather holds out to add to the event, and we are treated to an 80 minutes of world class rugby on our plastic pitch.
If Cardiff Blues are to come away with another trip to a European final, then starting well is an absolute must. Pau will try to test how physically up for the game we are early on, and if we don’t respond to the challenge, they will quickly get their backs up.
We can take confidence from the fact that we matched both Toulouse and Lyon on four occasions this season though, and if the forwards can reach some kind of parity with their Pau counterparts, then there is no doubt that the firepower we have within the backs can take advantage of good, quick ball.
As ever though, there is only one thing that I ask for, and that is 100% effort for 80 minutes. The boys have made me proud time and time again with that this season, and I’ve no doubt they do it one more time. Come on Cardiff!
Cardiff Blues form: WLWWW
Pau form: LLWWW
Cardiff Blues top try scorers: Owen Lane and Willis Halaholo (6)
Pau top try scorer: Watisoni Votu (12)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (159)
Pau top points scorer: Tom Taylor (128)
John Lacey (IRE) – Wait! I know it seems bad, but I have a stat for you. Cardiff Blues have won their last five games with Lacey in charge, four of which have been at the Arms Park. Keep the faith!