The 2017/18 season comes to a close on Friday night for Cardiff Blues as we face Gloucester in the European Challenge Cup Final at Bilbao’s San Mames Stadium.
It seems a fitting way to bring the campaign to an end, one which saw a real rocky start both on and off the field, as well as some real inconsistency in the middle part of the season, but one which overall has been a superb team effort and seen some terrific examples of Cardiff running rugby.
It is also the perfect way to say goodbye to a number of key coaches and staff who have played such a big role in taking us back to European finals and next season’s Champions Cup.
Danny Wilson has done unbelievable work to overhaul the squad and strike some real balance within it, getting the best out of young and old players alike. Ably assisted by Matt Sherratt, they have not only got us winning, but winning in style, and both will be sorely missed.
Fa’ao Filise is also set to appear one last time for Cardiff Blues in Bilbao, although we are without official confirmation that he is retiring yet. It will be the ideal end to a 12 year career at the Arms Park for the King of Tonga though, to make his 255th appearance in a European final and win a third piece of silverware.
There will also be farewells to Alex Cuthbert and Damian Welch who have both played their parts in bringing us to where we are, as Cardiff Blues lose a few stalwarts heading in to next season.
Re-focusing on Friday’s game though, and it won’t be an easy task against a Gloucester side in their third Challenge Cup Final in four years, and looking to take home their third trophy.
After coming through a pool that included our semi-final opponents Pau, and then going on to beat Connacht in Galway and Newcastle at Kingsholm in the knockouts, the team that finished seventh in the Aviva Premiership will want to finish their first season under South African coach Johan Ackermann on a high.
Playing a slightly new style of attack, they are now a team keen to run from anywhere, and have scored the fourth most tries in the Premiership at a rate of almost three tries a game as a result.
It is a fixture steeped in cross border history, with the very first meeting between the two sides in 1884 a significant one for the simple reason that Cardiff were short of a player to travel to Cheltenham College.
Frank Hancock was called up to play in the three-quarter line, and was so good the selectors did not feel they could drop him the following week with regular first teamers back available. As a result, the four-man three-quarter line was born.
Bringing that rivalry up to the modern day, and there was last season’s Challenge Cup quarter-final between the two sides at Kingsholm, that saw Gloucester run out 46-26 on the day. Cardiff Blues will be looking for revenge after competing for the first hour, before falling away.
There will be a few names missing from Friday’s Gloucester side though, as first choice half-backs Willi Heinz and Owen Williams are unavailable, as is star winger Charlie Sharples.
Coach Ackermann opts to name his son Ruan at number eight, ahead of regular starter Ben Morgan, but otherwise the Cherry and Whites are at full strength. The front five is particularly strong with Maori All Black Josh Hohneck and All Black John Afoa packing down either side of Australian international James Hanson.
Argentinian cap Mariano Galarza is in at lock alongside captain Ed Slater, while there is also international experience on the flank as exciting young Italian Jake Polledri is selected on the blindside.
There is youth at half-back, with Callum Braley and Billy Burns aged 24 and 23, respectively, but a steadying influence at centre sees Mark Atkinson and Billy Twelvetrees pair up.
In the back three the excitement will come from Jason Woodward, with the full-back lighting up both league and European competition this season with his ability to beat defenders one-on-one.
There is equal strength in the Gloucester front row on the bench, where Samoan hooker Motu Matu’u is joined by Paddy McAllister and Fraser Balmain, as well as the aforementioned Morgan.
Gloucester: Jason Woodward, Tom Marshall, Billy Twelvetrees, Mark Atkinson, Henry Trinder, Billy Burns, Callum Braley; Josh Hohneck, James Hanson, John Afoa, Ed Slater (c), Mariano Galarza, Jake Polledri, Lewis Ludlow, Ruan Ackermann
Replacements: Motu Matu’u, Val Rapava Ruskin, Fraser Balmain, Freddie Clarke, Ben Morgan, Ben Vellacott, Andy Symons, Tom Hudson
Cardiff Blues have faced injury problems of their own though, with club captain Gethin Jenkins failing to recover from a recurrence of his nagging calf injury in time, while George Earle and Alex Cuthbert are longer term absentees.
Rhys Gill has recovered from a facial injury picked up against Ospreys in time to start at loosehead though, and he will be joined in the front row by Fa’ao Filise, who impressed sufficiently at Judgement Day to be given one final run out in a Cardiff Blues jersey.
The back five forwards are as you would expect, while Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans win the race to start at half-back, with Gareth Anscombe at full-back, and Lloyd Williams and Matthew Morgan on the bench.
Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo again team up at centre, with Blaine Scully selected to replace Cuthbert on the wing opposite Owen Lane.
On the bench there are two slightly surprise selections as Scott Andrews beats Anton Peikrishvili and Dillon Lewis to the replacement tighthead spot, while Damian Welch is opted for as the reserve second row ahead of Macauley Cook.
Cardiff Blues: Gareth Anscombe, Owen Lane, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Blaine Scully, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey, Taufa’ao Filise, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins (c), Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Brad Thyer, Scott Andrews, Damian Welch, Olly Robinson, Lloyd Williams, Garyn Smith, Matthew Morgan
On paper this would seem an immensely tight game, with the bookies making Gloucester the favourites by the smallest of margins, and it will be those small margins that the game will come down to.
Cardiff Blues will be boosted by being the in-form team coming into the final, riding on the crest of a wave and with the motivation of winning the trophy for Danny, Matt and Fa’ao in their last every games with the club.
On the other hand, Gloucester have plenty of experience in this final, and know that they are somewhat fortunate to be here after qualifying for the knockouts as a best runner-up, when they would have been out of the competition under the old format.
Playing wise, the intriguing aspect to the game will be whether Gloucester can assert their dominance up front as they will no doubt wish to do, or whether Danny and Matt can again come up with a tactic for Cardiff Blues to take the game away from a forward battle, as they did against Edinburgh and Pau.
Then it will be the case of which team’s exciting group of backs can produce some match winning magic to get their side over the line.
It’s been a hugely enjoyable second half to the season, one that I hoped would never end in many ways, but if all good things do have to come to an end, they may as well do so with a European trophy in Bilbao!
There will only ever be one thing I ask for though, and that is 100% given to the jersey. The players haven’t let me down on this front so far, and there’s no reason to believe they will start doing so now. Come on Cardiff!
Cardiff Blues form: LWWLW
Gloucester form: LLWWL
Cardiff Blues top try scorers: Owen Lane and Willis Halaholo (6)
Gloucester top try scorer: Henry Trinder (9)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (170)
Gloucester top points scorer: Billy Twelvetrees (161)
Jerome Garces (FRA) – Arguably one of the best referees in the world, at long last!
Has refereed us six times in the past, with only three wins, but one of those was the away victory over Newcastle on the way to the 2010 Amlin Cup Final.