The key battles: Lyon v Cardiff Blues

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The excitement is building as European rugby returns this weekend, with Cardiff Blues back in the big time of the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time in five seasons.

Typically after so long away we end up facing a Lyon side who we took on in last season’s Challenge Cup pool stages, but it’ll be a very different opposition to that who we faced at the Stade de Gerland back in January, and who are currently third in the Top14 after beating Racing 92 away last weekend.

Lyon were not one of the increasing number of French sides looking to really compete in the Challenge Cup last year, making a number of changes to their side to face Cardiff Blues on each occasions.

They have also added a number of good quality signings over the summer, and as a result only two of the starting XV we faced in France last season will line-up against us on Sunday.

So with that in mind, let’s have a look at where Sunday’s game could be won and lost…

Dillon Lewis v Alexandre Menini

After a highly successful summer tour to the Americas with Wales, tighthead prop Dillon Lewis has perhaps not had the playing minutes he would have liked with Cardiff Blues at the start of this season. Just the one start has been paired with three substitute appearances so far.

However, John Mulvihill has handed the 22-year-old a chance on the big stage as he packs down in the front row after impressing off the bench against Dragons and Cheetahs.

Dillon Newport
Dillon Lewis has a big opportunity starting at tighthead in the Heineken Cup

He will face a stern challenge in the scrum though, going up against the experience of Alexandre Menini in a battle to obtain dominance at the set piece.

35-year-old Menini has done his apprenticeship in the lower French leagues, a notoriously physical arena, before spending time in the Top14 with Stade Montois, Biarritz and Toulon, racking up 52 appearances at the Stade Mayol between 2014 and 2016.

He also has six France caps to his name and will mix his strength with the wily experience of a prop who has been around the block a few times. With a squad announcement for Wales’ Autumn Internationals squad on the horizon, Warren Gatland will no doubt have a keen eye on how Dillon gets on this Sunday.

Josh Navidi v Louann Goujon

Many Cardiff Blues supporters may well have been surprised by the team selection for this Heineken Cup opener, with neither Nick Williams or Samu Manoa selected in a back row against a typically powerful French outfit.

Instead it will be Josh Navidi to wear number eight, as he did for Wales last November, lining up opposite French international Louann Goujon, who at 6ft4 and 16.5st is a powerful and athletic proposition.

Josh Navidi Cheetahs
Josh Navidi will wear eight in a back row of opensides

The clear intention from John Mulvihill is to target the breakdown with three opensides in the back row as well as Josh Turnbull and Macauley Cook at lock, but that potentially leaves us light in terms of countering driving mauls and dealing with the pick-and-drive game of Lyon.

As a result, the dreads will have to be at their destructive best not only to stand up in defence, but act as the primary ball carrier and give Cardiff Blues front foot ball in attack.

Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans v Jean-Marc Doussain and Lionel Beauxis

The half back battle is always a big part of rugby at any level, but the difference in experience levels between Cardiff Blues and Lyon makes it a particularly interesting battle this weekend.

Lyon have gone with plenty of experience, opting for Jean-Marc Doussain and Lionel Beauxis, aged 27 and 32 respectively, who have 40 France caps and well over 500 senior appearances between them.

On the other side, Cardiff Blues have gone with the 23 and 22-year-old combo of Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans, with just the two Welsh caps of the scrum-half the only international representation and 121 first team appearances in total.

Tomos Williams Glasgow
Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans will look to run the show for Cardiff Blues

Last season it was Jarrod who lit up the Stade de Gerland opposite Beauxis and Frederic Michalak, but big players arrive for big games and this campaign’s French combo will be keen to dominate the game on their own patch.

It will need a performance beyond their years for the Cardiff Blues pairing to martial their squad around the field. If they can successfully do so, there is a chance to at least come away with bonus points in defeat.

Owen Lane v Noa Nakaitaci

After a two-try performance against Dragons last week, young Welsh winger Lane will be full of confidence heading into the Heineken Cup pool stages this week.

However, opposite him will be one of the in-form wingers in the Top14 as 15-cap French international Noa Nakaitaci is ready to be unleashed on Europe in the colours of Lyon after seven years at Clermont Auvergne.

Owen Lane Dragons 1
Owen Lane bags his first try in last week’s Welsh derby

At 6ft3 and 15.5st, the Fijian born back is almost too stereotypical as a tall and rangey, quick yet powerful Pacific Island winger, and with three tries this season so far is benefiting from the space provided by the forward pack.

Lane is as physical as Nakaitaci though, you only have to see his first try at Rodney Parade last week for an example of that, and with a surprising turn of pace he’s got the speed to deal with most opposition players.

With plenty tipping him for a Wales call-up for the game against Scotland, a smart showing against a dangerous opponent in Nakaitaci will do him no harm at all.

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