Jonathan Davies: Cardiff masters of their fate in pool of endless permutations

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The Independent Online

There will be no climax to the Heineken Cup qualifying stages more thrillingly complicated than next weekend's deciding matches in Pool Three. After Friday night's results, three teams have a chance of going through to the quarter-finals.

The permutations facing Cardiff Blues, Bristol and Stade Français are mind-bending, and only Cardiff are in control of their own destiny. If they win at Bristol they will definitely qualify, but it is a big "if", because Bristol are bound to start as favourites on their own patch.

Bristol's own chances of topping the pool depend on them winning with a bonus point and Stade Français losing at Harlequins. Judging by the way Quins played at Cardiff on Friday, that is highly unlikely.

But for Stade, winning might not be enough. If Cardiff get a bonus point for losing by seven points or fewer then Stade will need a bonus point to top them. Going out to play knowing that you must score at least four tries loads you with an extra burden.

Stade would have been hoping to get a bonus point out of their match against Bristol in Paris on Friday but were made to fight to the bitter end. Indeed, it was Bristol who nearly clinched a bonus point, missing a late pen-alty as they went down 19-11.

There was a time in the first half in Cardiff when the Blues looked capable of slicing through Quins with four tries, but they still lack that touch of creativity,and although they won comfortably 23-12 it was nowhere near as comprehensive a win as it should have been. Harlequins tackled their hearts out but they were not in good shape as a team, and Cardiff can expect Bristol to be a lot tougher in defence.

But there is no doubt Cardiff are improving, and it is largely due to their forwards. On Friday, Xavier Rush played his usual awesome game. He really is an outstanding player, and Martyn Williams is also bang on form.

They are missing the creative skills of Nicky Robinson at outside-half, and the return of winger Tom James would help to add that extra yard in pace. But young centre Dafydd Hewitt played very well and Gareth Thomas put in one of his best performances in a Cardiff shirt.

A winning performance at Bristol is not beyond Cardiff, but Richard Hill has Bristol playing a simple but powerful game that takes some combating. The old heads in his pack such as Mark Regan, Darren Crompton and Matt Salter keep a tight grip, and outside-half Jason Strange organises, kicks and distributes so astutely. But having not only to win but score four tries as well can bring extra tactical pressure. If Bristol open it up it might suit Cardiff. In fact, if Cardiff score four tries in a high-scoring game and lose by less than sevenpoints they will be well placed to win the pool without winning this match.

As for Stade, they have seriously underperformed in the competition and now have to throw everything into a death-or-glory charge. That may well suit Quins, who certainly do not have the power up front to match Stade but could grab the oppor-tunity to go out with a flourish.

It is all so confusing, and it will be hard for the players to keep focused. They must not clutter their minds up with mathematical possibilities. They have to go out on to the pitch with only one aim firmly in mind – to win.

Having said that, you must retain the capacity to change tack depending on how the game is going. And if news seeps through about the other game some inter-esting tactical decisions might have to be made on the hoof. It can't fail to be fascinating.

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