Saracens sellout presents a short-term opportunity and long-term motivation

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This weekend sees Cardiff Blues face the unenviable task of welcoming European heavyweights Saracens to the Welsh capital for the second instalment of our Heineken Champions Cup double header.

At the time of writing the Arms Park is pretty much a sell out, with just the odd ticket on the North side of the ground available, meaning a huge atmosphere awaits on Saturday afternoon for a good old Wales v England club level battle.

Of course, I say the task is unenviable, but the attitude of the players and coaches going into the games against the Gallagher Premiership champions has to be one of seizing an opportunity.

The likelihood of progressing beyond the pool stages is now minimal at best, but coming out of that group with at least two, maybe three, wins would still be a huge achievement in our return to the top table of European rugby after five years away.

Away from results though is the opportunity to test ourselves against the one of the best in the Northern Hemisphere. Saracens have consistently set the bar high whether it’s back-to-back Heineken Cup wins or two Gallagher Premiership wins in three years, and are the level to compare yourselves to, albeit with noticeable budget differences.

Sean Maitland Saracens
Matthew Morgan attempts to tackle Sean Maitland

Returning to the top table is about going head-to-head with teams of this level, rather than second string French sides or semi-professional Eastern European outfits, allowing our players to show what they can do against the likes of George Kruis, Schalk Burger, Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt.

This week there has been debate about what sort of team we should be putting out this weekend with three huge Welsh derbies following on starting next Friday, and I can understand the rugby argument for that.

However, denying these players the chance to impress on the big stage would be harsh, especially after the effort that went into the second half of last season to secure automatic qualification back into the Heineken Cup.

That is before you consider the commercial aspect of a packed Arms Park and trying to ensure the return of some more occasional supporters, putting a spectacle on for sponsors who have pretty much sold out the corporate parts of the ground, as well as any potential supporters or sponsors watching on Channel 4’s free-to-air coverage.

More than just focusing on the single game aspect on Saturday though, there could well be a bigger impact on this Cardiff Blues season and the players in the squad.

Our Guinness Pro14 campaign has been inconsistent at best thus far, leaving us fighting to stay in contention for the play-offs and subsequent Heineken Cup qualification, but Saturday could be a huge motivator for the next few weeks no matter what the result.

Gareth Anscombe Glasgow
Gareth Anscombe goes past Scotland scrum-half Ali Price

Many players in the squad will now have a taste of European rugby’s big time for the first time ever, or at least the first time in a few years, and I’d like to hope they wouldn’t want to give up on that in a hurry and return to the Challenge Cup.

Playing the best teams in the Northern Hemisphere, benefitting from the increased media coverage and playing in front of full stadiums should be a massive incentive to return to the competition next season, and we as supporters have a role to play in ensuring that.

Obviously the 10 minute blitz of Glasgow Warriors nullified the atmosphere in round two, but if the boys can take the game to Saracens as they did at Allianz Park last week, then the Arms Park roar can push them into competing beyond the 45th minute this week.

No player would choose to be playing in front of 4,000 fans rather than a packed CAP, with the memory of this occasion hopefully driving the players on to a successful second half of the season.

These are the occasions that are special to the players as a group, to the supporters and to all of us as a club. Occasions to enjoy after the hard work of battling away on the field at Connacht, or travelling to Sale in the snow.

I say we stay here now we’ve made it back! Come on Cardiff!

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