After returning to Heineken Champions Cup action for the first time since 2014, Richard Hodges insists Cardiff Blues are desperate to become regular competitors at Europe's top table.
Wales’ Capital Region’s European campaign will come to an end on Saturday, as they host Top 14 high-fliers, Lyon, in the final round of pool stage fixtures.
Despite both sides being out of contention for a place in the quarter final, the defence coach hopes to sign off Europe in style and build momentum ahead of a crucial Guinness PRO14 clash against Connacht next week.
“We have a huge fixture against Connacht next week, and it’s probably the biggest fixture we’ve had in a long time. We have to win that in order to try to retain our place at the top table,” said Hodges.
“We’ve had a taste of it, and now we want to dine at the top table year-upon-year. In every walk of life, you aspire to be the best, whatever your career is.
“It's tough at the top table, it’s tough playing against these big sides and the squad depth really gets tested at times during the course of the season.
“We know what we need to improve - both technically and tactically - to do so. This experience has been an eye-opener, but we need to make sure that we can finish with a bang and put Lyon to the sword on Saturday.
“They’ve got Racing Metro next week in a huge game in the Top14, but we’re just concentrating on ourselves. We planned for the best in terms of what they will bring over, especially with their back three and boys likes Carl Fearns.
“When we get our strongest 23 out on the pitch, we can go toe-to-toe with anybody. Lyon are riding high in the Top 14 but we played them when both sides were full hit at the start of the season and beat them fairly convincingly.
“Against Saracens at home, we went toe-to-toe with them until the 77th minute, but it’s about the level of experience and know-how of playing at that level that let us down.
“Both as coaches and players, we’re desperate to retain our place in the Heineken Champions Cup. If we’re not in it next year, we’ll be thoroughly disappointed.
“The Challenge Cup is a very respectable and competitive competition, and we had huge amount of success in it last year, which everyone enjoyed being a part of. But for Welsh rugby to progress and for this region to progress, we want to be playing teams like Saracens, Lyon and other sides who consistently quality for the top tier of Europe.
“We make no bones about it, that is the level of competition we want here annually.”