After five seasons away from the top table of European rugby, Cardiff Blues are back in the Heineken Cup and battling with the big boys in the Northern Hemisphere.
It caps a few years of underachieving for Wales’ Capital Region as we’ve gone through a number of coaches and a huge amount of playing staff in trying to recreate the successes of the Dai Young era between 2008 and 2011.
After winning the Challenge Cup last year the tide has finally turned though, and with John Mulvihill coming in and starting well as the Head Coach, as well as some good quality signings and a number of exciting young players coming of age, Cardiff Blues are back in the big time.
Of course we have a serious history of competing at this level, having made the very first Final of the Heineken Cup back in 1995/96 as well as semi-finals in 1996/97 and 2008/09, and we are now looking to add to that with this group of players.
Typically though, after so many years away from the top tier European competition, our first game back is against a side in Lyon who we faced in last season’s Challenge Cup pool stage!
However, it does takes on another level from those games, which Cardiff Blues won 29-19 and 18-21 respectively, especially as it is Lyon’s first ever Heineken Cup match, having been playing in the lower French leagues until 2011 and then jumping back and forth between the Top14 and ProD2.
Since their most recent promotion in 2016 they seem to have turned a corner, solidifying their position in the French top division before finishing fifth in the regular season last time out before getting to a semi-final courtesy of an away win over Toulon in the quarter-finals.
That form has carried over into this season, with impressive away wins, a rarity in the Top14, over Perpignan and Racing 92 helping Lyon up to third in the table after seven games.
This has in part been to some shrewd acquisitions made over the summer, as the experience of Jean-Marc Doussain, Jonathan Wisniewski, Raphael Chaume and Loann Goujon have arrived, as well as overseas talent in the shape of Argentine international Manuel Carizza and All Black Charlie Ngatai.
As a result of these signings, and the fact that Lyon did not send a full first team side out in the Challenge Cup last season, the side we face on Sunday at the Stade de Gerland will be very different to that which Cardiff Blues came up against back in January.
Only two players survive in the starting XV from that game, in the form of centre Thibaut Regard and lock Hendrik Roodt, as Lyon go for power over style on their Heineken Cup bow.
Huge second rower Patrick Sobela is selected on the flank, with Alexandre Menini and Francisco Gomez Kodela being drafted in at prop to compliment Roodt and Felix Lambey at lock.
In the backs it is Regard and another All Black in Rudi Wulf who provide a powerful centre pairing, outside the experience of Jean-Marc Doussain and Lionel Beauxis at half-back, and in front of Ngatai who slots in at full-back.
A six-two split on the bench sees more conventional flankers Carl Fearns and Dylan Cretin waiting to be unleashed, as are the regular members of the tight five in Jeremie Maurouard, Raphael Chaume, Clement Ric and Manuel Carizza.
Lyon: Charlie Ngatai, Toby Arnold, Rudi Wulf, Thibaut Regard, Noa Nakaitaci, Lionel Beauxis, Jean-Marc Doussain; Alexandre Menini, Mickael Ivaldi, Francisco Gomez Kodela, Felix Lambey, Hendrik Roodt, Julien Puricelli (c), Patrick Sobela, Loann Goujon
Replacements: Jeremie Maurouard, Raphael Chaume, Clement Ric, Manuel Carizza, Carl Fearns, Dylan Cretin, Quentin Delord, Pierre-Louis Barassi
Cardiff Blues meanwhile run with a number of team selections that worked back in February, as John Mulvihill makes seven changes to the side that beat Dragons at Rodney Parade last Saturday.
Macauley Cook makes his first start of the season packing down at lock next to Josh Turnbull with George Earle injured, while Dillon Lewis is preferred to Dmitri Arhip at tighthead and Nick Williams is once again left out of the entire matchday squad with Josh Navidi playing at eight and this time it is Olly Robinson at blindside flanker.
In the backs the 10/15 combination of Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe is reunited, while Garyn Smith is selected at outside centre, but will play outside Willis Halaholo this time with Rey Lee-Lo on the bench.
Elsewhere there are starts for Rhys Gill and Tomos Williams who were both amongst the replacements last week.
On the bench there are recalls for Rory Thornton and Aled Summerhill, while Samu Manoa is set to make his Cardiff Blues debut after joining from another Top14 side in the form of Toulon.
Cardiff Blues: Gareth Anscombe, Owen Lane, Garyn Smith, Willis Halaholo, Jason Harries, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey, Dillon Lewis, Macauley Cook, Josh Turnbull, Olly Robinson, Ellis Jenkins (c), Josh Navidi
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Brad Thyer, Dmitri Arhip, Rory Thornon, Samu Manoa, Lloyd Williams, Rey Lee-Lo, Aled Summerhill
There is no doubt that Cardiff Blues are in for a bruising encounter at the Stade de Gerland on Sunday, with Lyon looking to impose their physical carrying game, as well as their offloading, on to us, before capitalising on any space created out wide if necessary.
The pessimists amongst us may say that John Mulvihill has selected a team that wants to score four tries and maybe nab a losing bonus point, but there could well be method in his somewhat surprising team selection.
We had great success in moving the cumbersome Lyon pack around the field last year, and with the legs of Rey Lee-Lo and Aled Summerhill to come off the bench, as well as the scrummaging prowess of Dmitri Arhip, if we can maintain parity at the set piece throughout the game we stand a great chance of punching holes in their defence.
It will take a masterful performance from Evans and Anscombe, as well as a big defensive effort that hopefully won’t take too much energy out of us, but there is a glimmer of hope that Cardiff Blues can get this Heineken Cup campaign up and running with a bang.
Whatever the result though, it’s just great to be back on the big stage. Come on Cardiff!
Lyon form: WWLWW
Cardiff Blues form: LLWWW
Lyon top try scorer: Charlie Ngatai (4)
Cardiff Blues top try scorer: Rey Lee-Lo (3)
Lyon top points scorer: Jonathan Wisniewski (51)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Gareth Anscombe (57)
JP Doyle (ENG) – The Irishman who referees out of England is widely regarded as the Gallagher Premiership’s best referee behind Wayne Barnes.
Doyle has refereed Cardiff Blues on four previous occasions, most recently in a home win over Pau in 2016, but his most famous game is that win over Toulon at the Arms Park.