Cardiff Blues and Gloucester have both named their squads for Friday’s Challenge Cup final. Robert Rees takes a look at the danger areas for both teams and key battles that could determine the outcome of the game.
Open game expected
Both sides have played a lot of expansive rugby throughout this season, especially in the Challenge Cup. That shouldn’t change with the weather in Bilbao expected to be scorching hot.
The starting XV’s put out by both Danny Wilson and Johan Ackermann are set to be a running team and this should result in plenty of tries for the 52,000 in attendance at the San Mames stadium as well as the thousands watching from home.
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Back row battle
Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins and Nick Williams vs. Jake Polledri, Lewis Ludlow and Ruan Ackermann.
A mouth watering contest by any standards. It was the back row that won Cardiff their semi-final against Pau with over 10 turnovers to their name. Jenkins, who has since been named co-captain of Wales for their summer tour, will be up against one of the best young players in the Premiership, Jake Polledri.
That’s sure to be a great test and will be interesting to follow around the park. Jenkins probably takes the breakdown slightly, but Polledri then adds a massive carrying game that will have to be contained by the Cardiff back row.
The Blues also have Olly Robinson to come off the bench who was superb throughout the semi-final.
Cardiff and Gloucester both have carrying threats in their back row in Nick Williams and Jake Polledri. This will test the close quarters defence to the max. Lewis Ludlow is Gloucester’s lead tackler and he’ll have to put that to good use as will Josh Navidi on the opposite side.
Controlling the midfield
Gloucester were excellent at doing this against Newcastle, Billy Burns featured throughout in a magnificent display that saw the Falcons completely overwhelmed by the Gloucester attack. Something that got them to the Challenge Cup final is the inter-link play between the likes of Atkinson and Twelvetrees in midfield.
There’s that aura around Burns pulling the strings that he knows his backline so well, he can get moves going from nothing. Something Cardiff will be looking to slow right down at the breakdown.
Cardiff also have equal measure of backline talent, lead by Jarrod Evans. Unlucky not to have gathered a spot for Wales’s summer tour against South Africa and Argentina, the young fly half will be looking to send Cardiff Blues’ season off with a bang in Bilbao.
Linking up with powerful runners in Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo as well as playmakers and deadly finishers in Owen Lane and Gareth Anscombe.
Ensuring there is no panic amongst the attacking play could well come down to how the forwards get on in-front of the backs, but the fly halves will be under pressure to perform as well as they have done all season.
It’s going to be a tough battle in the front five, with Gethin Jenkins missing for the Cardiff Blues. Rhys Gill starts in his spot alongside the only surviving member of the Toulon conquering squad of 2010, Tau Filise.
Gloucester have started with plenty of experience in their front row as Josh Hohneck, James Hanson and John Afoa line-up after a terrific Aviva Premiership season together.
Scrums will be vital in gaining the back row and backline ball to work with, just as line-outs will be a crucial attacking option for both sides.
Both Cardiff and Gloucester have strong lineout’s and will be looking to utilise them fully. Gloucester own a potent driving maul threat which Cardiff will have to be weary of, it was heavily used against Newcastle and it’s expected to be utilised aplenty throughout the final.
Captain Ed Slater and Mariano Galarza will be in the boiler room for the Cherry and Whites with Seb Davies and Josh Turnbull lining up opposite them for the Blues.
It’s also fair to say that the front five for both teams will have a carrying presence and will try and set up the platform for the attacks.
Gloucester the bookies favourites
Gloucester are being made slight favourites by two points by the bookmakers. This probably translates into a slight forwards advantage rather than anywhere else on the pitch, although the Blues do have immaculate back row depth. Something that Gloucester will be troubled by as bodies get tired.
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