European action returns this weekend as Cardiff Blues travel to Calvisano in Northern Italy to kick-off the 2019/20 Challenge Cup campaign.
It is the first time that the club have played in the second tier competition since winning it for a second time in Bilbao in 2018, having qualified for the Heineken Champions Cup last season where we were knocked out of a pool consisting of Glasgow, Saracens and Lyon.
However it allows John Mulvlhill’s men to play in the Challenge Cup 10 years after we first won the competition, with the Final once again in Marseille, the scene of our 2010 triumph over star-studded Toulon. Arguably the best day in the regional era.
While the opposition are minnows in terms of the tournament, as a semi-professional side playing in the Italian domestic leagues, they are a familiar opponent for Cardiff Blues as this is the third time we have met in the pool stages of European competition.
Drawing them in the 2005/06 and 2008/09 Heineken Cup, as well as the 2015/16 Challenge Cup has seen us play six times, with Cardiff Blues winning all six, scoring at least 40 points per game in every game along the way.
Perhaps the most famous of those games is the December 2005 double header, that saw the great Jonah Lomu make his debut. The story goes that journalists outnumbered supporters at the Pata Stadium that day.
So this season the reigning Italian Top12 champions have got off to a good start, winning their first three games of the campaign to challenge at the top, however last week they came unstuck away at Rovigo, dropping down to fourth in the league.
In response to that there are six changes to the starting team, most notably removing the experience of Italian international scrum-half Fabio Semenzato and club captain Alberto Chiesa on to the bench, with Federico Consoli and Simone Balocchi taking their places.
A new centre partnership and changes at tighthead and hooker, where Gabriele Morelli captains the side from, are also made as head coach Massimo Brunello looks to start his side’s Challenge Cup campaign well at home.
Calvisano: Kayle Van Zyl, Simone Balocchi, Giacomo De Santis, Damiano Mazza, Marco Susio; Paolo Pescetto, Federico Consoli; Riccardo Brugnara, Gabriele Morelli (c), Lorenzo Cittadini, Adam Wessels, Michael Van Vuren, Matteo Archetti, Nardo Casolari, Samuela Vunisa
Replacements: Matteo Luccardi, Lorenzo Michelini, Piermaria Leso, Gabriele Venditti, Antoine Koffi, Fabio Semenzato, Alberto Chiesa, Facundo Panceyra-Garrido
The majority of the Cardiff Blues changes come in the pack where only Josh Turnbull, Shane Lewis-Hughes and Seb Davies survive, with the latter switching to number eight. James Botham gets the nod on the blindside for a European debut.
In the backs three switches see Lewis Jones start at scrum-half, Willis Halaholo come in at centre with Jarrod Evans reverting to fly-half, and Jason Harries replace Aled Summerhill on the wing.
Will Davies-King, James Ratti, Alun Lawrence and Ben Thomas could all make their European debuts off the bench, with Davies-King, Ratti and Thomas making their first senior appearances in any competition.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Jason Harries, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Haloholo, Harri Millard, Jarrod Evans, Lewis Jones; Brad Thyer, Kirby Myhill, Keiron Assiratti, Josh Turnbull (c), Macauley Cook, Shane Lewis-Hughes, James Botham, Seb Davies
Replacements: Ethan Lewis, Will Davies-King, James Ratti, Alun Lawrence, Lloyd Williams, Dan Fish, Ben Thomas
It’s a team that points towards a tactic of moving around a Calvisano side that John Mulvihill noted saw their strength in the pack and at the set piece, with Cardiff Blues clearly aiming to out-manoeuvre them in the loose.
With the Italians being semi-professional the hope is that the visitors should be able to out-run them with a clever kicking game and a fast-moving attack, while in defence the line speed can hopefully disrupt the opposition’s rhythm.
Without wishing to be disrespectful to Calvisano, the bonus point has to be there target to get the Challenge Cup campaign up and running in a strong fashion. Safe journey to all supporters heading out to Northern Italy and come on Cardiff!