When Cardiff went to Gloucester for a Heineken Cup quarter-final in 2001, the Shed booed the playing of "Delilah" by a brass band, then joined in with it as a mass sing-along. They lullabied the Welsh side into a false sense of security, Cardiff lost 21-15 and according to the Blues' flanker Martyn Williams, they have only just recovered.
Or so he hopes. "It's taken us a long time to get over that defeat," said Williams. "After that year, we really struggled. We could field quite a good XV but never had the depth that we have now."
The depth is tested anew today. Williams is back to captain the side after missing last weekend's narrow defeat in Leinster – Gloucester were busy losing 10-7 at Newcastle in a gale – while he rested some soft-tissue damage to his left shoulder. But the Blues' regular skipper, Paul Tito, and full-back, Ben Blair, are out injured. Tito is replaced in the second row by Scott Morgan, with the tiro Wales wing Leigh Halfpenny in for Blair and Jamie Roberts, making his first start in seven weeks after a skull fracture, partnering Tom Shanklin at centre. "With the quality of player we've got now, we should be covered," said Williams.
There were a couple of victorious Welshmen in that 2001 meeting but they were on the Gloucester side: the captain, Kingsley Jones, and Byron Hayward, a fly-half from the Gwent Valleys, who knocked over the final penalty. Tom Walkinshaw, the Gloucester chairman, sprayed the fans with celebratory champagne but his team lost their semi-final to Leicester and have not been as far in the competition since. Cardiff and the Blues fared even worse, going out at the pool stage for the next six seasons.
"It was a tough day," said Williams. "We'd come out of a really tough group, we had massive expectations, and we went up there with a star-studded squad – the likes of Rob Howley, Neil Jenkins, Dai Young [a prop for the club then; the region's director of rugby now].
"My abiding memory is that we seemed to get penalised at every scrum. We scored two tries but Gloucester kicked seven penalties and we were out. Rob left, Neil, Dai and Jon Humphreys all retired and we didn't fill that gap."
So these are two teams with the European pedigree of a tramp's mongrel. Gloucester probably need to win this afternoon and at Biarritz on Friday to make sure of quarter-final qualification.
Though the Blues' wing Gareth Thomas – a try-scorer in 2001 – observed that his side can afford to lose at Kingsholm, every Heineken Cup contender knows the value of a good pool record in order to secure a home tie in the last eight. The Blues won a pool containing Stade Français and Harlequins last season, but all it got them was a trip to Toulouse, where they were well beaten.
This time around they have four wins out of four, including a 37-24 bonus-point victory over Gloucester at the Millennium Stadium in October. The Scarlets and Newport-Gwent Dragons – who host Bath today with the visitors vying with Toulouse for supremacy in Pool Five – are out of contention, while the Ospreys are still in the mix.
"We were pretty sloppy, and it was disappointing we gave them so much of the game," said Luke Narraway, the Gloucester No 8, of last October's set-to. Today Narraway has Apolosi Satala, who was a wing and centre for the Army a few months ago, as his openside flanker.
"He's a bit bigger than me, isn't he?" said Williams, who has 65 appearances in 13 seasons of Heineken Cup action, and 85 caps for Wales and the Lions. "Gloucester probably have a more mobile front-five than in the past but they're still big and physical. We coped OK at home but we know at Kingsholm we'll have to go up a level. It's key for us that our front-five do what they've done most of the season and allow back-rowers Andy Powell and Maama Molitika to do their carrying."Reuse content