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Thursday, 13 December, 2018

Cardiff can prove a real Euro challenge for Gloucester

Blues' form is arguably better than Cherry & Whites

Cardiff Blues wing Owen Lane makes a break against Pau in the semi-finals
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Cardiff Blues v Gloucester
BT Sport 2 & Sky Sports Action, 8pm Friday

Gloucester beat Cardiff 46-26 at Kingsholm in a see-saw battle in last season's European Challenge Cup quarter-finals and the expectation is that this year's final in Bilbao will be just as entertaining.

The Cherry & Whites, 4-1 ante-post favourites in October, will be confident and pumped up to go one better than last year, when they were sunk 25-17 by Stade Francais at Murrayfield, and take the trophy back to the Shed as they did in 2006 and 2015.

Thirteen of their matchday squad were either involved in notching 26 unanswered second-half points against the Blues 13 months ago or felt the pain of defeat in the Scottish capital.

Head coach Johan Ackerman and his son, number eight Ruan, will be keen to claim silverware in their first season in the West Country after back-to-back Super Rugby final defeats with the Lions.

Full-back Jason Woodward, on the left wing for the Hurricanes against the Lions in the 2016 Super Rugby final, and lock Ed Slater, captain for this match, were dynamic pre-season captures while flanker Jake Polledri, now an Italy international, has been one of the finds of the English club campaign.

Beating Connacht in Galway, as Gloucester did in the quarter-finals, is always a hard task and in their last truly intense test, Gloucester beat a flying Newcastle side 33-12 in the semi-finals. The Falcons have since qualified for the Premiership playoffs and finished with seven league wins as well as some notable cup efforts on the road.

However, Cardiff still look worth a wager with a start of two points.

The Blues are a better side than when they were blown away at Kingsholm last year, often making light of injuries to senior stars such as British & Irish Lions skipper Sam Warburton and veteran prop Gethin Jenkins.

Kiwi centres Rey Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo, ex-Canes teammates of Woodward, are playing as a midfield partnership now as opposed to exciting individuals and the back row of Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins and evergreen Nick Williams are making light of any residual set-piece shortcomings with savvy carries and sensational tackle stats.

Cardiff have won eight of their last ten matches in all competitions and there are excuses for their two narrow defeats. After winning their quarter-final at Edinburgh, the Blues suffered terrible travel delays on the way down to Bloemfontein. Two weeks ago, they were already safely in the Champions Cup next season when downed by a last-gasp Dan Biggar drop goal for the Ospreys.

As well as winning at Murrayfield, when Edinburgh were in great nick, Cardiff won at Toulouse and Lyon in the pool stages while there is never any shame in defeat at Sale. Their semi-final victims Pau also beat Gloucester in both group games.

The only nerves on show at San Mames will be about glory as both teams have already qualified for next season's Champions Cup and the Blues can make a bold bid to give departing coaches Danny Wilson and Matt Sherratt a perfect leaving present. 

Cardiff +2
2pts Evs bet365, BoyleSports

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Cardiff have won eight of their last ten matches in all competitions and there are excuses for their two narrow defeats
E.W. Terms
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