Challenge Cup Final preview: Gloucester Rugby v Cardiff Blues
Gloucester Rugby could join Harlequins as three-time winners of the European Challenge Cup when they take on Cardiff Blues in Friday’s final in Bilbao.
The Aviva Premiership Rugby club lifted the trophy in 2006 and 2015, and will be hoping to go one better than last season’s final defeat to Stade Francais at Murrayfield.
But in Cardiff Blues they face a side with Challenge Cup pedigree of their own, champions in 2010 and resurgent in the PRO14, where they have lost just twice since the beginning of January.
Here’s our look ahead to the clash at the San Mamés Stadium as the Cherry & Whites lock horns with the Blues.
Gloucester head coach Johan Ackermann has stuck with the majority of the team that lost to local rivals Bath a fortnight ago, with the one change seeing Ruan Ackermann start at No.8 in place of Ben Morgan.
The Cherry and Whites made wholesale changes to their starting XV for last weekend’s defeat at Saracens, but the likes of Billy Twelvetrees, Tom Marshall and Jake Polledri all return for this crunch match.
Flanker Lewis Ludlow is the only player to retain his starting place in the side, which will be skippered by Ed Slater.
Cardiff Blues have made ten changes to their starting XV that lost to Ospreys two weeks ago, with Ellis Jenkins leading the Welsh side out.
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WHAT THEY SAID
Gloucester Rugby head coach Johan Ackermann said: “Obviously, we’ve had two disappointments in the past two weeks.
“But, if you look at the Challenge Cup in isolation, we’ve played well, except against Pau, and got into the quarter-finals which was a game which stood out for me because the guys did well to give us that home semi-final.
“We’ve overcome that hurdle and given ourselves the chance in the Final, and hopefully the players will embrace this and put in a good performance to give ourselves an opportunity to lift the trophy and make everybody proud of the season.
“Cardiff are deservedly in the Final. They’re a team with a lot of threats – a very good loose trio and a very good back line.
“They’re a side who will fight for everything and I think it will be a great final between two sides that play a decent brand of rugby.”
Cardiff Blues head coach Danny Wilson said: “It has been a great achievement to reach this stage but we will now settle for nothing less than winning on Friday night.
“We are all determined to deliver some silverware to the region.
“It promises to be an electric occasion between two sides that like to run the ball and play attacking rugby.
“Gloucester will be highly motivated for a European final, will be well-prepared and emotionally in a place that they will be bouncing to try to turn us over but that will be no different to ourselves.”
ROUTE TO THE FINAL
Gloucester enjoyed bonus-point wins against Agen and Zebre, both home and away, to ensure safe passage from Pool 3, but had to settle for second spot after two defeats to Pau.
A thrilling contest at the Galway Sportsground saw the Aviva Premiership Rugby side topple Connacht in the quarter-final, winning 33-28, before beating fellow English side Newcastle Falcons 33-12 in the last four.
Cardiff Blues topped Pool 2 ahead of Toulouse, Sale Sharks and Lyon, winning five games and losing just once to the Sharks in December.
They knocked out fellow PRO14 side Edinburgh in the quarter-final with a 20-6 win at Murrayfield, before seeing off French outfit Pau in the semi-final, winning 16-10.
The most recent meeting between these sides came during last season’s Challenge Cup, as Gloucester secured a 46-26 quarter-final win to knock out the Welsh team.
They have met in a final before, but in the Anglo-Welsh Cup back in 2009 where the Blues lifted the trophy after a 50-12 victory.
Gloucester had their revenge the following year, knocking the Blues out at the semi-final stage, but they would go on to lose the final to Northampton Saints.