The 2020/21 European Challenge Cup gets underway for Cardiff Blues on Friday night as John Mulvihill’s men travel to Newcastle Falcons for an 8pm kick-off.
As always when a new European campaign gets underway there is that sense of excitement, although this season it is tinged with an element of sadness as we finally draw two excellent away trips, to Newcastle and Paris for Stade Francais, but can’t actually go to the games.
I’d strongly suggest that competition organisers EPCR have somehow engineered this just to annoy us, because that sounds like something they would definitely do!
Hopefully the situation will be considerably different by the time the knockout stages come around in April and May though, so that should be a form of motivation for the squad, to enjoy a European second round or quarter-final game, potentially against a side dropping down from the Heineken Champions Cup, at the Arms Park in front of supporters.
In previous years spent in the Challenge Cup there has been a debate over whether or not to take the second tier competition seriously, but this season that debate has largely been nullified. That desire to see knockout games in front of fans, the fact that so many fringe and young players have had game time in recent weeks and building on previous success in the competition all point towards going for a third win.
Having said that, there is a need to manage the playing time of the squad due to the condensed nature of the season and the upcoming fixtures.
The vast majority of the squad have played a lot of rugby over the last two months, whether that is with Cardiff Blues in the Guinness Pro14, or during Wales’ Autumn International campaign. We saw at the end of the Glasgow Warriors game two weeks ago just how much that has taken out of the legs, and would see that again if we threw some of our internationals straight in against Newcastle.
With three huge Welsh derbies following the games against Newcastle and Stade Francais, before the return fixtures in Europe in mid-January, putting our strongest XV out seven weeks in a row would be irresponsible in terms of ensuring we perform to a high level every week and from a player welfare perspective.
As a result I would suggest utilising almost two different matchday 23s over the next two weeks, managing the workload of the players and giving them a chance to almost trial for a spot in the Welsh derbies over the festive period. They are games every player wants to be involved in, and go a long way to selection for the Wales Six Nations squad.
A balance in each 23 between young players, squad players and returning internationals ensures a good amount of the squad get valuable minutes under their belts, and Cardiff Blues put competitive sides out against Newcastle and Stade, while also enjoying a week of a lighter workload, so they are match fit and rested going into the derbies.
Players who have not played so much in recent weeks due to not being selected or injuries, such as Rhys Carre, Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Olly Robinson, Tomos Williams and Rey Lee-Lo would be up for the trip to Newcastle, and then those who have featured regularly like Dmitri Arhip, Cory Hill, Josh Turnbull, James Botham, Lloyd Williams and Josh Adams would benefit from an extra week rest before Stade.
With plenty of young players ready to take the field, the likes of Keiron Assiratti, Teddy Williams, Alun Lawrence, Gwilym Bradley, Jamie Hill, Ben Thomas, Max Llewellyn and Mason Grady all making appearances recently, as well as the likes of Luke Scully and Ioan Davies waiting in the wings, the squads can strike a nice balance between experience and new faces.
There are plenty of spots up for grabs in the 23 to face Dragons on Boxing Day, so a good performance over the next two weeks may well be enough to get a go in the derby and help ensure the Pro14 campaign stays alive as we push for the play-offs.
The big games are coming thick and fast, time for players to stick their hands up!