When Cardiff take the field against Toulouse on Saturday afternoon in the Heineken Champions Cup at a packed Arms Park there will certainly be a lot of emotion in the stands.
It certainly is not the occasion that anyone envisaged when the fixtures came out over the summer, when the Blue and Blacks would host the reigning French and European champions at our famous old ground in a repeat of the 1995/96 inaugural Heineken Cup Final giving us a chance to test ourselves against the best around.
Instead it’s a ragtag matchday 23 made up of Welsh internationals, fringe first team players, academy members and semi-professionals, drilled by a makeshift coaching staff for a week and taking the field to represent our great club, but also represent so much more than that.
It’s a game that comes at the culmination of one of the toughest few weeks in the club’s history as the 48-person travelling party to South Africa that was due to play Lions and Stormers over the last two weekends was caught up in the UK Government placing South Africa on the red travel list, resulting in a week of isolation overseas before 10 days quarantine in a Gatwick hotel.
What should have been a two-game tour kicking off a massive 10-game fixture block for Cardiff descended into a logistical nightmare that transcended rugby with heavy impacts on the mental health of those isolating, the missing of birthdays, graduations and for Keiron Assiratti, seeing his grandfather one last time before he passed away this week.
For six of the 48 the light is still a bit further down the tunnel as after positive covid tests they are only just arriving back in the UK and, crazily, facing another 10 days in isolation having already done the same in South Africa.
The impacts continue beyond just those 48 as well, with a number of Cardiff staff working around the clock back in the Welsh capital to get them home over the last few weeks, while the stress and worry inflicted on the family and friends of those caught up in the situation will have been tough to deal with, reassuring themselves while trying to keep the morale of their loved ones high.
From crisis comes opportunity though, and for many of the 23 men who will pull on the historic blue and black jerseys on Saturday a debut chance to feature in the first team on arguably the biggest stage that club rugby can offer; a test match in all but name.
Whether academy players putting in the hard graft to make it to the next level, or semi-professionals working on Tuesday and Thursday nights for years to improve themselves, the dream of this opportunity will have stuck with them every time they took a training pitch or field on game day, and now they have their chance.
The pressure is non-existent. Any safety concerns have faded away safe in the knowledge that good rugby men like Dai Young and Gruff Rees don’t send men on to the field just to get a game on, and that Richard Holland would not force that nor ignore advice to the contrary. It’s not even especially about learning as a player.
When it comes to the approach to the game, there’s little point in saying “we’re going to just throw the ball around” because handling errors result in scrums and Toulouse can turn the screw. Similarly “kick the leather off the ball” is not anyone’s first preference as a rugby player. They just need to play their natural games.
It’s all about the experience, when it comes down to it.. The week-long build up to a huge Heineken Cup game, walking into the ground, warming up in front of a bubbling atmosphere, running out to a full house, embracing that feeling and funnelling it into doing the best you can possibly do, because you’re not representing just yourself or Cardiff out there.
That 23 will be playing for all those stuck in quarantine who have handled themselves with such dignity over the last few weeks, those who have gone above and beyond to support them and get them home, those who we have lost over the last week, and everyone who has helped get the selected players that will take the field to the position they are in on Saturday.
Every single one of those people will be supporting the Blue and Blacks on Saturday, plus 10,000 others will be right behind them at the Arms Park, asking nothing more than 100% effort for 80 minutes.
Enjoy and embrace it lads, and do your very best!