European action returns to our lives this weekend, a month later than usual due to the impact the Rugby World Cup has had on the domestic season.
It’s a particularly exciting time for supporters as the flags and scarves are packed, the passport found at the back of the draw and the beer money saved up, with Europe being crossed for a weekend of rugby.
Even though some international players have not yet returned to playing action after getting to the end of the tournament in Japan, the next two weeks will still be packed full of high quality club rugby action with the aim of making it to May’s Finals still a realistic possibility in the minds of everyone.
For Cardiff Blues we’re back in the second tier Challenge Cup this season, but the excitement is still there as we prepare to fly out to Northern Italy this weekend and traverse the public transport system to get to the Pata Stadium in time for 2.30pm on Saturday.
It may not be the glittery sights and sounds of the Heineken Cup, but it’s a competition we have come to love more than most in Europe, with the two triumphs so far ranking right up at the top of many supporters’ time following the team.
Of course there is quite a nice symmetry with both Challenge Cup winning seasons as well, with Cardiff Blues boasting an almost identical record now as we did in 2017/18, with the final being in Marseille just as it was 10 years ago.
Add in the fact that pool rivals Calvisano are a semi-professional side, Leicester Tigers are bottom of the Gallagher Premiership and Pau are a French side that don’t always take the competition seriously, and all of a sudden I find myself on booking.com searching for hotels in Marseille.
In all seriousness though the Challenge Cup comes at a perfect time for John Mulvihill’s men, on the back of a win over Cheetahs stopping a run of four losses in a row, and a chance to refocus on a new competition for four of the next five weeks.
There is always a debate to be had when playing in the second tier European competition about whether to take it fully seriously, or whether to utilise the wider squad, but in this case for Cardiff Blues then leaning towards the former of those options is absolutely the way to go.
Wins over Calvisano and Leicester in the next two weeks would be a huge boost to the season and actually, there’s no reason why we can’t go and win this group. Injuries depending, of course, but push to qualify for the quarter-finals and anything is possible.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance to utilise some younger talent or fringe talent to see what they can do though.
Will Davies-King could get a nod at tighthead with Dmitri Arhip injured, Ben Murphy or Teddy Williams are available with Rory Thornton out, Alun Lawrence and James Botham are both pushing for inclusion in the back row with Olly Robinson injured.
In the backs Jamie Hill could get a look-in with a heavy workload for Lloyd Williams so far, Ben Thomas is an ideal replacement for the footballing 12 after Jason Tovey’s injury, while Ioan Davies might fancy some playing time with Matthew Morgan having started every game so far.
As I’ve written previously the ideal circumstance is to drip-feed them into the first team, rather than plunge them all in together, and there is certainly an opportunity to blood one or two over the next two weeks.
Especially with the news that Rhys Patchell is out injured for the next four months, meaning Jarrod Evans is likely to spend a lot of time with Team Wales, there is a great chance to look at fly-half cover over the next few weeks.
On the whole though the aim has to be to win and maintaining consistency in the squad selection generally is the best chance we’ve got of doing that.
Enjoy the weekend if you’re heading out to Calvisano, and keep an eye on the Supporters Club Twitter @CardiffBluesSC for their travel guide and possible designated bar in Brescia for the trip.