Cardiff Blues get the 2020/21 European Challenge Cup campaign underway on Friday night with a trip to face Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park, 8pm kick-off.
After a disappointing first fixture block in the Guinness Pro14 that has left John Mulvihill’s men with an uphill struggle to qualify for the play-offs, the change in competition comes at a perfect time to re-focus minds and provide a momentum boost ahead of the upcoming Welsh derbies.
Of course there is excellent history on the European stage for the club, as the runners-up in the first ever Heineken Cup back in 1995, before winning the Challenge Cup in 2010 and 2018, memories that will live long in the minds of supporters, especially those in Marseille and Bilbao.
Unfortunately last season’s European foray was an underwhelming affair, going out in the pool stage after defeats to Pau and Leicester Tigers, with the Cardiff Blues squad no doubt keen to make up for that, starting away to Gallagher Premiership newcomers Newcastle on Friday.
The Greene King Championship winners have returned to the top division of English rugby with a bang, winning their opening three games of the season up against Bath, Sale Sharks and Wasps, who finished fourth, fifth and second, respectively, in the previous campaign.
There is a good omen for Cardiff at Kingston Park though, as on the way to Marseille in 2010 Dai Young’s team headed up to Newcastle in the quarter-final and promptly dispatched the hosts with a 20-55 win. We crossed for seven tries that day, including a famous Fa’ao Filise brace!
More recently we have visited in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, receiving a 57-0 thumping in November 2017, and Newcastle Director of Rugby Dean Richards has named five players who survive from that day in his matchday squad for this Friday, with Sam Stuart, Joel Hodgson, Josh Matavesi and Alex Tait all starting, while Mark Wilson takes a seat on the bench.
The side overall shows a totally changed starting XV from that which beat Wasps last week, with lock Bailey Ransom, flankers Josh Basham and Rob Farrar and centre Pete Lucock all making their first starts for the club.
Wilson is one of two long-term injury returners on the bench, alongside Tongan international Cooper Vuna, while Kyle Cooper is set for a first outing at prop after being converted from hooker.
Newcastle Falcons: Alex Tait, George Wacokecoke, Pete Lucock, Joel Matavesi, Tom Arscott, Joel Hodgson (c), Sam Stuart; Adam Brocklebank, Jamie Blamire, Mark Tampin, Darren Barry, Bailey Ransom, Rob Farrar, Josh Basham, Tom Marshall
Replacements: Charlie Maddison, Kyle Cooper, Rodney Ah You, Connor Collett, Mark Wilson, Louis Schreuder, Cooper Vuna, Brett Connon
John Mulvihill is able to welcome back six members of Wales’ autumn internationals squad into his 23, with Dillon Lewis, Cory Hill, Seb Davies and Shane Lewis-Hughes all starting while Rhys Carre and Lloyd Williams take seats on the bench.
They are part of seven changes to the starting XV that lost to Glasgow Warriors last time out, with the others seeing Sam Moore make a first Cardiff Blues start at number eight, with Josh Turnbull switching to openside flanker, while Garyn Smith is in for Rey Lee-Lo at outside centre and Hallam Amos is preferred to Matthew Morgan at full-back.
There are seven survivors from that Anglo-Welsh trip to Newcastle three years ago, with Carre and Lewis-Hughes being joined by Brad Thyer, Ben Murphy, Ben Thomas, Owen Lane and, set to make his first appearance of the season if called upon, Harri Millard in remembering that game all too well.
Cardiff Blues: Hallam Amos, Owen Lane, Garyn Smith, Ben Thomas, Aled Summerhill, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Brad Thyer, Kris Dacey, Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Cory Hill (c), Shane Lewis-Hughes, Josh Turnbull, Sam Moore
Replacements: Iestyn Harris, Rhys Carre, Scott Andrews, Ben Murphy, Gwilym Bradley, Lloyd Williams, Harri Millard, Matthew Morgan
Returning to an artificial pitch on what is set to be a dry night in Newcastle, Cardiff Blues will no doubt be keen to return to the high-tempo running rugby we saw in the win over Connacht before the international break, with the return of Wales stars up front providing a better platform to play from.
Many of the home players will be enjoying their first competitive run-out since before the coronavirus pandemic struck, so making a first start to capitalise on any rustiness will be key, and utilising the bench well to take advantage of tired legs late-on will also be important for John Mulvihill.
The main aim has to be avoiding having to make 200 tackles and being pinned in our half with little possession or territory though. Get an early foothold and starting to dominate proceedings should be possible when comparing the squads. Facing another fixture block of back foot rugby will be tough to watch. Come on Cardiff!