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Cardiff Blues v Gloucester: Match preview
Gloucester will look to end an encouraging first season under Johan Ackermann on a high as they take on Cardiff in the final of the European Rugby Challenge Cup.
Heavy defeats by Bath and Saracens in the past two weeks consigned the Cherry and Whites to a seventh-placed finish in the Aviva Premiership, despite spending much of the campaign in the top half of the table.
However, that disappointment is largely offset by the fact that they have already secured their place in next season’s European Rugby Champions Cup by virtue of reaching Friday’s showpiece at the San Mames in Bilbao.
Cardiff’s prior qualification for the tournament through finishing fourth in their Pro14 pool (the third-placed Cheetahs cannot compete) means Gloucester are now awarded the available place by default.
That certainly removes an element of jeopardy as they seek to join Harlequins as the most successful team in the history of the Challenge Cup by adding a third title to their 2006 and 2015 triumphs.
Ackermann admitted as much as he urged his men not to dwell on the underwhelming end to their domestic campaign.
“We took a bad blow but the nice thing about this is six days later you get the opportunity to take all that pain away and put a lot of smiles so we’re just going to focus on that,” he said.
“We’ve played some brilliant rugby during the whole season, we can’t get down in a hole and start shutting down.
“The focus for this competition was that it’s a route to the Champions Cup and now we’ve ticked that box it takes a little bit of pressure off on this final and we can go out and express ourselves, just play and enjoy it.”
Extra motivation for Gloucester should be provided by the painful memories of their heart-breaking 25-17 reverse against Stade Francais in last year’s final at BT Murrayfield.
Ackermann also knows the agony of losing in finals only too well, having watched his Lions side miss out on the Super Rugby title in 2016 and 2017 with defeats to Hurricanes and Crusaders respectively.
“If the players are as excited as I am hopefully it will go well,” he added.
“I told the players, again it’s not about me, it’s about them and it’s about Gloucester but the disappointment of the last two years losing in finals – I just want to be on the right side of the result.
“It’s not a lot of times you get the opportunity to be involved in finals so I just want to embrace it and enjoy it again and it’s a privilege to be part of a team again that’s playing a final.”