You wait five years to get back into the Heineken Cup. The top table of European rugby. You could be drawn against any of the great and good. Who do Cardiff Blues get? A team we faced last season in the Challenge Cup of course!
Yes Cardiff Blues return to Lyon this weekend after doing the double over the French side last season on the way to Bilbao to face Le LOU in the opening Heineken Champions Cup pool game of the season.
A 29-19 win at the Arms Park was followed up by a Jarrod Evans-inspired 18-21 victory over at the Stade de Gerland against a side that finished fifth and reached the Top14 semi-finals last season.
However, and it’s a crucial however, the Lyon that we played in the Challenge Cup last season will not be the same Lyon that we will face in the Heineken Cup this season.
It’s widely known that the French sides don’t really take Europe’s second tier competition that seriously, but they will go all out for the premier competition and after a summer of recruitment where Lyon have picked up experience in the shape of Jean-Marc Doussain, Jonathan Wisniewski and Manuel Carizza, they will be a much tougher opponent.
So far this season they have had one or two disappointing results, losing 30-13 away at La Rochelle and drawing at home to Toulouse, but overall they will be pleased with big home wins over Montpellier and Grenoble, as well as a rare win on the road in the Top14, away at Perpignan.
Last weekend’s win away at Racing 92 will no doubt be the season highlight at this point though, and although big away wins like that to leave them third in the league may well be anomaly in the French league, the way Lyon play certainly is not!
As with plenty of French teams the core of Lyon’s playing style is a powerful pack of forwards. They have some very big and physical men in their squad, with Frenchman Alexandre Menini and Loann Gujon complimented by the likes of Argentinian Francesco Gomez Kodela, Wallaby Liam Gill and South African Etienne Oosthuizen who is the try scorer at the end of the clips.
It is not just the power though, it’s the relenting phases of play-after-play putting pressure on that fringe ruck defence that is the impressive aspect of their game.
Lyon ask a huge amount of not only organisation and scramble defence, but the mentality of getting up and in line phase-after-phase to put in tackles against some tough ball carriers. In the Pro14 where the play is somewhat open, it is a big shift in mindset.
What makes defending against them so difficult though, is that they have the ability to switch from the pick-and-drive quickly.
With Lyon’s forward power at the forefront of their minds, Montpellier, the opposition in the above example, stock the fringe defence with two guards and two bodyguards to ensure any pick-and-drive can be repelled.
However, Le LOU switch the ball wide and the left winger comes across from the blindside to take advantage of some poor spacing in the outside defenders who have been left somewhat short in comparison with those on the fringe of the breakdown.
Lyon have packed their half-back ranks full of experience with 33-year-old Jonathan Wisniewski arriving at the Stade de Gerland after making over 200 combined appearances for Racing 92 and Grenoble to replace Freddie Michalak, while France internationals Lionel Beauxis, Jonathan Pelissie and Jean-Marc Doussain are also on the books.
As a result they have the ability to control as and when the forwards pile on the pressure on to the opposition’s defence, and when to take advantage of space in the wide channel by playing a touch more expansively.
Something that runs all the way through the squad though is some superb handling skills.
It’s almost too typical, maybe even simplistic, for a French team, but Lyon are the classic powerful team with deft hands able to carve you open unless you are disciplined and committed in defence.
Against both this team and Toulouse in last season’s Challenge Cup there were huge defensive performances to win all four games. This was not just in terms of tackling, but desire to scramble when inevitable offloads came, physicality to put the hits in and an effort to slow them down at the breakdown.
There’s no doubt that it will be the same this weekend as Cardiff Blues return to the Heineken Cup to face Lyon, and a good start will be crucial in this pool.
If we win in France on Saturday it’s a massive confidence booster to take on Glasgow at the Arms Park next week and take two positive results into the December double header against Saracens.
Lose though and it feels as if we will already be playing catch-up in what is an ultra competitive tournament. It’s great to be back, of course it is, but while we’re here we may as well go for it. Come on Cardiff!