So here we are, at the start of another week leading up to a weekend of European knockout rugby, except this is no ordinary week. It’s the Challenge Cup Final, and the last game of the season, and this era in the history of Cardiff Blues.
Back in the build-up to our Easter weekend in Edinburgh, I stated that European quarter-final week was my favourite week of the season to be involved in. It is nothing in comparison to the build-up to a European final though, but I didn’t really know that.
On a personal level, I was very young when Cardiff made the 1995/96 Heineken Cup Final, and while I was aware of Cardiff Blues heading to the 2009/10 Amlin Cup Final, it was at a time where I juggled following the Blues with Cardiff City FC, who of course made the Championship Play-Off Final the same May.
This year though, I am counting down the seconds until it is time to head to Bilbao, with the unexpected nature of the whole season, and the feeling like this chapter of our history is coming to a close with Danny Wilson and Fa’ao Filise leaving, before a brave new world begins with John Mulvihill at the helm and the young players coming through at it’s heart.
To kick-off this week we will be following the lead of the semi-final build up, with a blog based on a song, which this time it is the Welsh military classic Men Of Harlech.
Men of Cardiff stop your dreaming
Can’t you see their spear points gleaming?
See their warrior’s pennants streaming
To this battle field!
Now, there are many different versions of this song in both English and Welsh, but I’m going to use my favourite version, the Men of Harlech sung at the end of the 1964 film Zulu.
Of course, I may have changed the lyrics slightly, but the sentiment of the opening verse fits nicely with our attempts to overcome Gloucester Rugby this Friday night at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao.
The Aviva Premiership side are no strangers to the final of this competition, having made it twice in the last three years. A win over Edinburgh in 2015 was followed by a defeat to Stade Francais last season, while they were also Challenge Cup champions in 2006, giving them a good pedigree in the Europe’s second tier tournament.
They are packed with international quality, from John Afoa and Jeremy Thrush in the tight five, through Ross Moriarty and Ben Morgan in the back row, and to Billy Twelvetrees and David Halaifonua in the backs, while head coach Johan Ackermann has led the South African Lions to a Super Rugby final.
Playing-wise, they will no doubt fancy trying to bully us up front, asserting their dominance on the game that way before allowing their back row carriers and back line attackers to make yards and put us to the sword. There will also be no time to switch off, as the talent in their back three looks to run from everywhere.
However, if there’s one thing we know about this Cardiff Blues team this season, they won’t shirk from going out onto that pitch and taking on everything Gloucester want to do. We’ll have a game plan, and the confidence within the team can execute that.
From the hills rebounding
Let this war cry sounding
Summon all at Cambria’s call
The mighty foe surrounding
The story of Men of Harlech in Zulu is one of a backs to the wall battle, whereby the British Army fight bravely against the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift despite being drastically outnumbered.
Obviously I’m not going to compare this season’s Cardiff Blues directly to that, but you cannot doubt that we have made it this far against a lot of odds, and a lot of that comes back to one thing, culture.
It’s been spoken about a lot in recent weeks, but it’s been clear for a good few months that this team are playing for each other. They are the tightest knit group that I have known at the Arms Park, and that is translating onto the pitch.
Danny Wilson has to take a lot of credit for that, but it doesn’t mean that bond will cease to exist when he leaves. The coach does not set the team culture, he creates an environment where the culture can be developed positively, through the style of play and the atmosphere around the training ground.
Cardiff Blues are playing a brand of rugby that suits our players down to the ground, have a leadership system that they believe in, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company away from the field.
This translates to on-field performances and victories in games where a lot of people had written us off before a ball was kicked, and which previously we would almost certainly have lost.
Very few people expected us to make the Champions Cup after our start to the season, or qualify for the Challenge Cup knockout stages after seeing our pool draw, but they were proven wrong.
Games against Connacht, Toulouse, Lyon, Cheetahs, Munster and Zebre were won by the narrowest of margins thanks to huge defensive shifts when in years gone by we’d have folded under the pressure. Being nil’d by Sale in December would have knocked us off track for at least a month, but we came back to beat them the very next week.
That team spirit has served us well against all the odds time and time again this season, and there’s no reason it can’t take us to one more win on Friday night in Spain.
Men of Cardiff onto glory
This shall ever be your story
Keep these fighting words before ye
Welshmen never yield!
There’s been a lot of talk in the build up to the Challenge Cup Final about the classes of 1996 and 2010, and while our heritage in European competition can inspire a club, now is the time for the class of 2018 to book their places in Cardiff Blues history.
This team has done something incredibly special this season, and while I firmly believe it is just the start of the story for this group of players, what a reward it would be for the hard work down by them and Danny Wilson’s coaching staff to win some silverware on Friday.
They have put a belief back into this club that we can compete at the top end of the Pro14 and European rugby again, and rewarded us supporters who have stuck by the Cardiff Blues when turning our backs would have definitely been the easiest option.
Whatever the result on Friday they have done us proud, but I don’t expect the players and coaches to be thinking like that for a minute. This team culture has spawned a winning mentality, a fight and determination that we haven’t seen for too many years, and a belief in our own abilities.
The balance in the squad, the individual talents, the defensive organisation and the attacking threat we pose. There is no reason we can’t get past Gloucester on Friday and these players write their names in Cardiff Blues history.
For one last time this season, come on Cardiff!