In my never-ending quest to become the ultimate rugby hipster I’ve always quite enjoyed the European Challenge Cup, perhaps even more than the Heineken Champions Cup!
That’s almost certainly linked to more than a decade’s worth of disappointment that Cardiff have suffered in the top competition, as well as the success we have had in the second tier cup in that time. Beyond that though there’s also an element of avoiding the sycophancy of BT Sport, particularly when it comes to the English teams, alongside the more obscure trips you get to experience in the Challenge Cup.
However, there is an undoubted downside to the competition in that particularly the lower half Top14 teams do not seem to take it seriously at all, and haven’t done in memory. Waves of changes are made to the regular league starting XV for the pool stage of the European competition, in a trend that we are increasingly seeing in the bottom half Gallagher Premiership sides and even in some URC teams.
Now it’s hard to blame the coaches of these clubs for making that decision with the current rugby calendar as it is. Games come thick and fast at both domestic and international level for an almost complete 12 months now, and for the French teams in particular the league is where the biggest money is to be made. Avoiding relegation from the Top14 is the priority well above all else.
Unfortunately it does take the shine off many games in the pool stage though, and that almost proved to be the case on Saturday evening as Brive arrived to face Cardiff with a much-changed starting XV from that which has been competing in the league over the last few weeks, and in front of a crowd that wasn’t what the commercial department would have hoped for in a European fixture under the lights at the Arms Park.
Thankfully the encounter in a bitterly cold Welsh capital was saved by an excellent performance from the Blue and Blacks who cared not for who the opponents were in front of them and put in a professional and almost completely dominant display to blow Les Noir et Blanc away.
It was based on a first 40 where Cardiff were brutally physical at the breakdown, at the set piece and in defence. Brive, despite their changes, still arrived with a large and capable pack, but it was no match for the hosts who saw some different faces come to the fore in Kris Dacey, Lopeti Timani and James Ratti who put the visitors on the back foot from the word go.
With the French side beaten, and playing downhill in the second half, the Blue and Blacks proceeded to put on a clinic in winning field position and stretching the opposition when you get in the right positions, while still having that base of physical domination across the park.
The only blight on the evening was the lineout which failed to an almost spectacular level and will need some focus in training over the next few weeks, but on this occasion that wasn’t punished and not only did the attack put 41 points up on the board, the defence kept an opposing side to nil points for a second game in three weeks.
Due to the totally bizarre competition format that the Challenge Cup currently has in place that result probably leaves Cardiff needing only one more win from the remaining three pool games to progress to the round of 16. With that in mind it will be interesting to see how Dai Young approaches next week’s game up in Newcastle.
He could choose to rest some players ahead of the Welsh derbies and focus on targeting the home games against the English side next month to progress to the knockout stages of European competition, he could retain a strong team in order to maintain the momentum being built, or he could retain the strong team in order to aim for the top of the pool and secure a home tie in the round of 16.
Whichever way he goes though it’s done from a strong base which allows for the coaching staff to make positive decisions going forward, rather than scrabbling to become competitive or turn form around, and at this point in the season that is a great position to be in.