Cardiff Blues coach Dai Young expects tremendous support with his sides clash with Toulouse, with the tickets sales having reached a club record.
However, it will be with some trepidation and a cursing of luck that Cardiff will host Toulouse, five time finalists and the three time champions of Europe.
In the corresponding match last year on April 6th, Toulouse hosted the Blues at Stadium Municipal. If Cardiff had managed to turn up the heat on Bristol in their final match and collect a bonus point, they would have avoided one of the most powerful teams in France.
As it was, they were hammered 41-17 by Stade Toulousain and were humbled out of the Cup.
Last year was indisputably one of the great years for the Blues. In the Magners League, they finished runners up, with the crowning moment being a magnificent 25-22 victory over Munster at Arms Park on the 1st of March.
Not only would they finish above the mighty Irish province, but would take this momentum into this year’s Heineken Cup championship.
While the Blues have been disappointing in this season’s Magners League, currently sitting in Eighth, they have become well accustomed to the rigours of the Northern Hemispheres grandest stage.
They have looked assured and played with such composure than many would not marry them with a team currently sitting two places from the Magners cellar.
Their crowning glory was against Gloucester on the 18th of January, where, despite being down by a man for the better part of 60 minutes, they held off the cherry and whites to win 16-12.
This would cement the Blues in the Quarter Finals, where they would eventually finish as the top seeds of the pool stages, the only unbeaten team in the championship. It would earn the right of a home final, and would host the worst performing qualifying team.
This team, by virtue of bonus points, would be Guy Nove’s masterpiece, Toulouse.
Under the tutelage of arguably Frances greatest ever coach, the famed team from the Midi Pyrénées has won no less than eight championships and three of Europe’s premier domestic titles.
In 20 decorated years with the club, Nove’s has carved out one of Frances classic images, that of the track suited Toulouse field marshal prowling the sideline, barking orders to his shock troops.
While qualifying eighth for the finals of this year’s Cup sounds like a failure by the clubs lofty standards, it is not quite so. But after four consecutive wins to open their 2008/2009 account after racking up the most Grand final appearances the year before—their last two matches almost derailed their campaign.
A shock loss to the Glasgow Warriors and a miserable 3-3 draw with Bath almost crashed Nove’s team out of the championship, but now he and his team have a chance for redemption.
Not just redemption for themselves, but for France.
The only team to represent the proud nation, it has been an average year for flamboyant French rugby. The Six Nations was regarded as a failure, and with the numerous controversy and upheaval in the game, their most powerful club has a chance to right the wrongs of the followers of ‘le ballon ovale.”
For surely Les Bleus won’t when next playing the All Blacks in the House of Pain.
The current Top 14 leaders will bring one of the more formidable packs in Europe to Millennium Stadium, anchored by former French captain Fabien Pelous. But it will be in the tackle area where the Toulousains will look to dominate, led by Thierry Dusautoir who is widely considered as the most efficient defensive flanker in the game.
But it will be in the backline where Toulouse’s menace lies. French international David Skrela has been passed fit, in a backline where all players are considered front line test players. The only exception is Byron Kelleher, who himself is a former All Black.
Clement Poitrenaud has been passed fit, and will feature in a backline that will likely have Cedric Heymans, Vincent Clerc and Florian Fritz returning to the starting XV after sitting out their recent clash with Brive.
However, the Blues, only the sixth team in Cup history to go through the pools unbeaten, are littered with Welsh internationals themselves.
Martyn Williams and Andy Powell will return to a pack featuring that will fancy themselves against a veteran French pack, with former All Black Xavier Rush likely to complete a formidable Blues back row.
As with the French though, the Blues arsenal lies in the backline. Gareth Thomas, Tom Shanklin and Jamie Roberts may not be as flamboyant as their opposition three quarters, but they are renowned defensive players.
It is here that the match will be decided. If the Blues can shackle the Toulouse attack, they will back themselves to take the upset—which it would be despite Cardiff’s top seeding.
Still, Toulouse should have just a bit too much class, and win a close tussle by two.
Match fact: Cardiff and Toulouse played in the first Heineken Cup European Final, with the 21-18 victory to Toulouse winning them their first of three championships, in the beginning of a decade where they would dominate Europe.
Cardiff Road to the Quarter: W W W W W W
Last match:Cardiff 62 – 20 Rugby Calvisano
Toulouse Road to the Quarter: W W W W L D
Last match: Toulouse 3 – 3 Bath
Previous Heineken Cup encounters: Toulouse 4 – 1 Cardiff
Last match: Sunday 6th April 2008, Quarter Finals, Toulouse 41 – 17 Cardiff