Cardiff Rugby will field a “misfit” line-up featuring youngsters and semi-professionals against the might of European champions Toulouse, but have vowed to make the best of “a surreal situation” this weekend.
Of the 48 players and staff that departed for United Rugby Championship fixtures in South Africa last month, six remain in the country after testing positive for Covid-19. The remaining 42, who eventually flew back to the United Kingdom last week, are undertaking 10 days of quarantine in London.
In order to fulfil their Champions Cup fixture against Toulouse on Saturday lunchtime, Cardiff have drafted in players from their academy as well as semi-professional outfit Cardiff RFC.
Gruff Rees, the organisation’s academy manager who has been overseeing preparations for this game in the absence of Dai Young, acknowledged that facing Antoine Dupont and a glittering array of stars constituted a “daunting task”. However, with established internationals such as Josh Adams, Ellis Jenkins and Tomos Williams to lead the squad, he was hopeful of a “great day for the club”.
“We have a slightly misfit group, guys without a commonality of messages,” he said. “We’ve had to dilute some of the detail. That may not be possible to the nth degree but that’s a healthy thing. We can just see the game a bit differently.
“There is less pressure, in some ways. It’s the responsibility for whoever is on the field that they’re representing a great rugby club in a great competition. Weighing it all up, we just see it as a positive experience.”
Willis Halaholo, Seb Davies and Dillon Lewis are other current internationals likely to be selected. On the other end of the experience scale, 20-year-old full-back Jacob Beetham and 19-year-old wing Theo Cabango look to be in contention, as does back-rower Alex Mann, a Wales Under-20 captain, and lock Rhys Anstey.
Among the Cardiff RFC contingent are Dan Fish, now a Cardiff Rugby academy coach, and back-rower Alex Everett. Rees, who said that assembling capable front-rowers had been a safety priority, explained the tactical challenges of facing Toulouse.
“We know we certainly couldn’t go into an arm-wrestle because of the size of them, how powerful they are and the pressure they put you under,” he said. “There are also some wonderful ball-players with pace there. They’re European champions for a reason, they’re well-rounded.
“But it is us having to adapt our game in terms of hit and run and enjoying the speed we are going to put on the field. We’ll put out one of the pacier sides we could possibly do and well try and play on that element while putting them under pressure.
“We’ve got a proud defensive DNA. We’re going to have to be smarter in some of our set-piece contingencies, lineout defence and scrum work, but we’ve been planning heavily for that.”
Toulouse, who won the domestic and European last season, begin the defence of their Champions Cup crown two points behind Bordeaux at the summit of the Top 14 table. Besides scrum-half Dupont, shortlisted for the World Rugby Player of the Year gong, they boast a fleet of France internationals including Romain Ntamack, Cyril Baille and Anthony Jelonch. Tactically, Rees said, Cardiff will adopt a pared-down approach.
“We know we can get Josh Adams to thrive a certain way,” he explained. “[We want] the back row to have a certain amount of discipline about them. But we want to get the ball back.
“We want to try and pressure [Toulouse], to do things that we’re good at and not watch them waltz their way across the park. It’s about taking some stuff we’ve seen and possibly getting our best players on the ball in certain channels, getting some decent one-v-ones.”
One particularly satisfying aspect to the last fortnight for Rees, given his day job, has been the interaction between Cardiff’s senior figures and fresher faces.
“You see Ellis Jenkins chatting to Alex Mann post-sessions,” Rees added. “I try to encourage the academy boys, when they train with the seniors, to glean information off the boys who have done it a number of times internationally.
“We’ve obviously been spending a bit more time looking at clips, saying ‘Dupont does this, this is how he scans the game’. Suddenly there are things you have to shut down in a different way. You realise the quality you are playing against and you utilise the guys you have around you.
“Josh Adams is unbelievable in the way he talks around the field, and also in the huddle when he’s summing things up. That doesn’t bog people down. It encourages them and gives them confidence.”
Meanwhile, Scarlets, another Welsh region to have been caught up in quarantine after returning from South Africa, have forfeited their own pool stage fixture against Bristol. Pat Lam’s side will be awarded a 28-0 victory, with EPCR acknowledging that the measure was a means of ensuring that “all fixtures in the 2021-22 Heineken Champions Cup were accounted for”.