Head to Head
Cardiff’s only previous game against Pau in Wales was on 21st October 2016, when the home side ran out 27-12 winners in front of a meagre crowd of less than 7,000. A three tries to two victory was built on a sound defensive performance in a game dominated by the set piece. The return fixture in the Pyrenes was a one point game, with a penalty from Steve Shingler snatching victory in the last minute for Cardiff. That season, Pau lost every one of their Challenge Cup games, but this season has been somewhat different. They were unbeaten in the Pool games and won both home and away games against finalists Gloucester. At home, this season they’ve lost only three games – against Montpellier and Stade Francais and then last week, a shock defeat to Agen who are some way below them in the Top 14 table. Away from home, they have seen less success which made their victory in Kingsholm all the more impressive. Their biggest win this season was the revenge game in Paris where Stade were stuffed 5-40. For that game, Pau fielded six Kiwis in their starting squad.
Kiwi-born Simon Mannix was appointed coach of Pau in the summer of 2014. Capped once at outside half for the All Blacks, he played his rugby for the Hurricanes before heading north to Sale and Gloucester. In the 2015-16 season, Pau made a return to the top flight after 10 years away. That season, they finished 11th in the table and have continued to improve each season, 9th last season and are now 7th in the Top 14. Both Mannix and Cardiff’s coach Danny Wilson have been in charge for a similar number of games for their respective clubs, but the Kiwi has only managed 13 away victories in his 95 games.
Forty-four year old John Lacey will referee his 23rd Challenge Cup game this weekend – and his first in Wales in that competition. In fact, he’s never refereed a Welsh team in the competition. Only David Wilkinson and Ian Davies are ahead of him in game count amongst referees still active in the Challenge Cup. Lacey was in charge when Pau came away with a victory at Kingsholm, and that was the only time he’s ever ref’d the men from the Pyrenees. Lacey’s record in the Pro14 puts him bang on average as favouring neither home nor away team in this career – with a 63% home win record (just about average for the league). This season, Lacey is averaging 0.7 yellow cards per game, which again puts him mid-table (much as he was last season). This season, Lacey has ref’d Cardiff only once – in their narrow home victory over Benetton in March.
Cardiff are unbeaten at home this year, but if one compares their home stats with Pau’s away stats this season, it is the Frenchmen who come out on top in just about every facet of the game. The Frenchmen offload more per game, their pass count is higher, the team beat more defenders per game and make more breaks. They’ve run more than 30m per game further (on average) than Cardiff. If one looks at Pau’s attacking record round by round in the Pro14, they consistently feature at the top end of the attacking stats. When they’ve been ahead at half time, they’ve only gone on to lose in two fixtures this season. Cardiff’s ability to come from behind (at half time) and win is far from impressive, having only done so once in the Pro14 this season. Despite their attacking prowess, Pau have been less successful in securing bonus points in the Top14. On only 7 occasions have they scored three tries or more. It is rare for Cardiff to face a team who are weaker than them in this measure.
No team has conceded more scrums against the head than Pau during this season’s Top14, and it seems certain that Cardiff will target this facet of the game. Their lineout too is shakey – second worst in the league. Expect a kicking game from Cardiff, playing the territory and an effort to deny possession to Pau’s impressive attacking skills.
Both Pau and Cardiff have very similar tackle stats for this season. In the Top14, no team has – on average – attempted more tackles per game away from home than Pau. But the completion rate is poor when set against Pro14 teams and this could prove the decisive factor this weekend.
Pau’s disciplinary record in the Top14 has seen them average 0.8 cards per game – mid-table in a league where referees are more generous with their cards than in other major leagues. This season, they’ve conceded six cards in the Challenge Cup to five from Cardiff. Pau’s discipline shows little difference between home and away games. They are averaging 9.4 penalties a game in the Top14 having conceded 111 penalties at home and 114 away from home. Cardiff, meanwhile, average 10.7 penalties per game, but there is some daylight between their discipline in home games as opposed to away games. There seems much more equality in the way Top14 cards are awarded than similar data for the Pro14. There is a spread of only 12 penalties between the team who receive cards most frequently (Clermont – at a rate of 10 per penalty concede) and that who receive cards least frequently (Oyonnax at a rate of one card every 22 penalties). In the Pro14, the spread is a remarkable 58 – skewed by the rarely-carded Scarlets.
All the stats show both teams are equally across the board and the game should be a tight one. But the biggest difference is psychological. Despite their victory in Gloucester, Pau have been poor on the road this season and Cardiff will be playing at home. The Arms Park is the toughest place to play in the Challenge Cup where the home team have a 92% success rate. This will prove the decisive factor and the Welshmen will run out victors 28-13.