In depth: Cardiff Blues’ Challenge Cup opponents

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So Cardiff Blues now know we will be facing Leicester Tigers, Pau and Calvisano in pool 5 of the 2019/20 European Challenge Cup, as attention turns to next season.

We are back in the second tier competition having missed out on the Guinness Pro14 play-offs, and subsequent qualification for the Heineken Cup, last season, but it gives us a chance to go for a third time lifting the trophy.

Incidentally, it comes 10 years after we won the competition for the first time, and if we do make the Final again it will be a return to the scene of that triumph in Marseille.

First though we have to navigate the pool stages, so let’s have a look at our pool 5 opponents.

Leicester Tigers

The biggest name in the pool, apart from the world famous Cardiff Blues of course, as the 10-time champions of England play in the Challenge Cup for the first time in their history.

It was a tough campaign last time out for the midlands side, as some off-field coaching turmoil, injury problems and some generally poor performances saw them right in the Gallagher Premiership relegation mix until late in the year.

Eventually they finished 11th, and will keep faith with head coach Geordan Murphy as a squad overhaul sees around 20 players depart Welford Road this summer, with the search to re-establish the culture seen under Richard Cockerill during his tenure well underway.

Some shrewd recruitment has seen Jordan Taufua (Crusaders) and Tomas Lavinini (Jaguares) come in to add some Super Rugby bulk to the forwards, while Jaco Taute (Munster) and Noel Reid (Leinster) will provide some reliable carrying in midfield.

In terms of Cardiff Blues and Leicester head-to-head we have met in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and a pre-season friendly recently, but the last properly competitive fixture was a certain game in April 2009, where a 26-26 scoreline at the end of extra-time saw us head for a penalty shootout.

As we know, Tom James and Martyn Williams missed their kicks, and we were denied a spot in the Heineken Cup Final in the cruellest of circumstances.

How seriously Leicester will take the competition remains to be seen, with a return to the top half of the Gallagher Premiership the undoubted aim for the season, and avoiding injuries another key goal.

However, fixture scheduling dependent, there will hopefully be a cracking Anglo-Welsh atmosphere at both games in two historic rugby grounds.

Tom James Leicester try
Tom James dives to score late in normal time during that Heineken Cup semi-final

Pau

Or Section Paloise, as their full title reads, are back in the Challenge Cup for the fourth consecutive season having finished 11th in the Top14 last season.

While their scoring rate was fairly average, they finished with the second worst points difference at -255 having conceded the second most points, in 756. That’s 29 points per game going against them.

A coaching change this off-season means a familiar face will be returning to the Arms Park next year, as former Cardiff Blues captain Paul Tito, who played 124 games between 2007 and 2012, is now the French side’s forwards coach.

Of course Pau themselves are not strangers to the Welsh capital having visited in April 2018 for the Challenge Cup semi-final, when a Gareth Anscombe try and the boot of Jarrod Evans sent us to Bilbao. Before that we did the double over them in 2016/17.

If they choose to take the competition seriously next season they could well bring with them one of the best stocks of Southern Hemisphere players in the Northern Hemisphere club games.

Already with the likes of Ben Mowen, Colin Slade and Frank Halai in the squad, they will add All Blacks Luke Whitelock and Ben Smith to the ranks after the World Cup, a formidable duo to say the least.

Gareth Anscombe Pau 2
Gareth Anscombe scored the crucial try against Pau in the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup

Calvisano

Interestingly the most familiar faces to Cardiff Blues in the draw are not the Gallagher Premiership or Top14 opponents, but the semi-professional Italian minnows!

This will now be the fourth time we have met Calvisano in European pool stages, having met them in the 2005/06 and 2008/09 Heineken Cup campaigns, and the 2015/16 Challenge Cup season.

So far we are unbeaten in all six games, with the most recent victory coming back in January 2016 when a Tom James hat-trick, a brace from Cory Allen and tries from Rhys Patchell, Aled Summerhill, Ethan Lewis, Josh Navidi, Alex Cuthbert and Dan Fish seeing us to a comfortable 74-6 victory.

Perhaps the most memorable game came away at Calvisano in December 2005 though, despite a forgettable 10-25 scoreline, as Jonah Lomu made his Cardiff Blues debut.

The Italians qualified courtesy of winning the Italian domestic league, the Top12, and then overcoming fellow countrymen Rovigo over two-legs, having topped their pool in the third tier European Continental Shield.

Key players include Matteo Zanussi, the hooker who spent four years at Benetton before this season, back-rower Samuela Vunisa who had two seasons at Saracens and spent 2017/18 with Glasgow Warriors, and former Italian international and long-time Benetton scrum-half Fabio Semenzato.

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