The next 10 weeks are about as tough as it gets for Cardiff with Dai Young’s men travelling thousands of miles, facing the champions of each of Europe’s top three leagues and going head-to-head with local rivals.
A brutal Heineken Champions Cup draw sees us face reigning French and European champions Toulouse when the competition gets underway in two weeks, before going to reigning English champions Harlequins the following weekend. There are then back-to-back Welsh derbies against the Scarlets and Dragons on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, a trip to Edinburgh, the reverse fixtures in the European pool stage and then just to top it off, a quick game against Leinster at the Arms Park.
It all starts over the next two weeks in South Africa though as Cardiff face the Lions in Johannesburg on Sunday before returning to Cape Town to face the Stormers the following Saturday night.
The games themselves will certainly not be easy. Although the Lions are the weakest of the southern hemisphere sides in the United Rugby Championship on paper, playing at Ellis Park they host sides at 1,700 metres above sea level, some 700 metres higher than the peak of Yr Wyddfa, where the oxygen level is down at 82%.
We then go to Stormers who could well be boosted by the return of Springboks Steve Kitshoff, Herschel Jantjies and Damian Willemse as they hope to build up the table. If results go against us we could return from South Africa in 10th place, with at least two teams below us enjoying a game-in-hand.
The squad has largely not played in four weeks, with no A games arranged over the international break and only one of the travelling squad, Keiron Assiratti, being given game time with the Rags, while we also know just how tough the South African opponents are from a bruising defeat against the Bulls and a battling win over the Sharks.
However, despite all that stacked against us this little two-week tour could well be a great platform to fly into the fixture block from as the squad enjoys two-weeks in good weather and top facilities working on their rugby and bonding as a unit.
Although much of the squad has been together for two-to-three years now, there are some new faces in Matthew Screech and Rhys Priestland, as well as youngsters Theo Bevacqua, Teddy Williams, Gwilym Bradley, Ellis Bevan, Jamie Hill and Max Llewellyn, to properly integrate into the culture, and spending time away in South Africa was a huge part of the players coming together on the way to Bilbao in 2018.
Putting together two good performances and claiming at least one win would also be superb heading into the next five games as it would take the pressure off in terms of the race for the top eight and allow Cardiff to play without reservation against Toulouse and Harlequins.
There isn’t any expectation in either of those games no matter the outcome of the mini South African tour, but without the worry of falling behind in the URC to consider it would only heighten the excitement of testing ourselves against two of the best club sides in the world.
And when it comes to getting the results we could catch the opposition cold. The Lions haven’t played since round four of the competition, having had a bye week while travelling home in week five, therefore they have even less game time than our squad in their legs, with no Springboks on the payroll to boost them either.
So for all of the outside distractions all that matters come Sunday afternoon is going head-to-head with the side from Jo’burg and playing our way. Do that, get the win and enjoy a week in Cape Town knowing that we are still right in the hunt for the URC play-offs.