Blues out to conquer European foothills for Wales

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The Independent Online

Welsh rugby can be as volatile as an Icelandic volcano field but ice-cool Dai Young will be forgiven for blowing his top today if he becomes the first Welsh coach to win a European title. The Cardiff Blues will face Jonny Wilkinson's Toulon for the Amlin Challenge Cup in front of a fiercely partisan 50,000 crowd at Marseille's Stade Velodrome. Even for a side who have experienced peaks and troughs to rival the Welsh valleys, this is their Everest.

Since 2002, Young, who is the longest-serving coach in Europe's top tier after Guy Noves at Toulouse, has systematically rebuilt a team that once, well before regionalisation, proclaimed itself to be the "greatest in the world".

His work last season, guiding the Blues to within a penalty shoot-out of a place in the Heineken Cup final and to a rampant victory in the EDF Energy Cup, caught the eye of the Tigers. Young twice visited Welford Road with a view to succeeding Heyneke Meyer as Leicester coach, before opting to "finish the job" with the Blues.

That was not surprising, after he fought to improve facilities, sealing moves to share a state-of-the-art training HQ in the Vale of Glamorgan with Wales and the £48m Cardiff City Stadium with the city's football club.

"It was extremely flattering to be linked with Leicester but after fighting long and hard to help build this region, I'd have been a fool to rush off as things were coming together," said Young (right). "The day will come to move on but I'm in no rush. I'm proud of how far this region has come. We've proved we can compete with the biggest teams and have only lost twice in two years in Europe. Now it's about proving we can be winners and achieving something special."

That dream looked a million miles away during Young's first season in coaching, when Cardiff were humiliated 75-25 by Biarritz. He said: "I knew I was facing three years of stick when I took over because we weren't good enough. Alex Ferguson wouldn't have won the Champions' League with the Derby County squad but that would not make him a bad manager.

"I understood the expectancy at Cardiff and people have doubted me throughout my career. But I never spent time worrying about criticism, even when it affected my family, otherwise I wouldn't get anything done."

Wilkinson is looking to cap a first season in France with a European title, a week after Toulon lost a Top 14 semi-final against Clermont Auvergne in extra time. How much that defeat will have taken out of them remains to be seen.

The Blues fly-half, Ceri Sweeney, said: "Jonny may have been a victim of his own success with the injuries but he has still got it. I've been involved in Wales-England games when he was outstanding and now he's even more experienced. We know we have to keep a close eye on him because he orchestrates their entire game."

Cardiff Blues B Blair; L Halfpenny, C Laulala, J Roberts, C Czekaj; C Sweeney, R Rees; G Jenkins (capt), T Thomas, F Filise, B Davies, D Jones, M Molitika, X Rush, M Williams. Replacements G Williams, J Yapp, S Andrews, P Tito, S Warburton, D Allinson, D Flanagan, D Hewitt.

Toulon C Marienval; G Lovobalavu, T May, S Williams, J Sinzelle; J Wilkinson, M Henjak (capt); S Taumoepeau, P Fitzgerald, D Kubriashvili, E Lozada, R Skeate, J van Niekerk, F Auelua, J Fernandez Lobbe. Replacements S Bruno, L Emmanuelli, T Ryan, J Suta, O Sourice, M Kefu, P Mignoni, T Umaga.

Referee A Rolland (Ireland).