European Challenge Cup – Preview

There’s nothing like a weekend of European rugby and this week we resume proceedings with round three in both European competitions. With the end of the year just around the corner, the focus around each club will be to finish 2016 strongly and look to build momentum as the business end of the campaign approaches.

Gloucester v La Rochelle (Pool 1)       

The top two teams will battle it out for the ascendancy in Pool 1 at Kingsholm. Both sides have won their opening two rounds. The Cherry and Whites found the try line with ease in their games with Treviso and Bayonne, racking up a total of 10 tries. Likewise, with La Rochelle, it’s difficult to separate the two teams adding to the excitement of the match-up in prospect. La Rochelle have started strongly in the Top 14 and currently occupy fourth place, but a recent slump in form, may give Gloucester the edge in what should be one of the highlights of the round.

Prediction: Gloucester by 5.

Bayonne v Benetton Treviso (Pool 1)

Points have been hard to come by for both teams, who sit bottom of the pool and bore the brunt of large defeats from their opening two fixtures. However, something’s got to give and both teams will be eager to record their first win in the competition this term. Both teams have struggled domestically of late and a respite from their league campaign may be a welcome feeling, but you feel a winning bonus point from the victor could provide a glimmer of hope for progression.

Prediction: Bayonne by 7.

Grenoble v Ospreys (Pool 2)

Welsh side Ospreys are riding high atop pool two after two bonus-point-winning victories in their opening fixtures of the campaign. The French side took the spoils against Connacht back in April with the smallest of winning margins, so they’ll be out to take scalps again. But with the strength of Ospreys, it would be difficult to see them lose the encounter. The big names of Alun Wyn-Jones and Justin Tipuric should be too much to handle for Grenoble, but nevertheless, the French side are a team renowned for battling til the final whistle.

Prediction: Ospreys by 12.

Lyon Olympique v Newcastle (Pool 2)

Newcastle Falcons have hit a good run of form recently and their bonus-point win against Quins will hold them in good stead for the clash in Lyon. Both sides currently occupy the pool with five points, so much-needed win will give either side huge confidence of a route into the knockout stages. But The Falcons away record in the Challenge Cup doesn’t make for good reading, having not secured a win on the road since January 2015 – a record they’ll undoubtedly want to dispose of in France. Similarly, Lyon will be searching for their first home European win since January 2015. The Falcons’ recent Premiership form could be the difference that sees them edge of the line.

Prediction: Falcons by 4.

Enisei-STM v Brive (Pool 3)

Enisei have been the surprise package in this season’s competition. Currently topping the pool, the Russian-based team welcome French side Brive as they look to create some breathing space over second-placed Dragons. Once the whipping-boys of the competition, Enisei have certainly intrigued –their home-form in the competition has been exemplary, having not lost at home since November 2015 when Connacht came away victors. Brive on the other hand will be looking to end the run, but form in the competition has proved elusive for the French club. Brive have won only once on the road in their last four European attempts and could find conditions difficult against a side on a high.

Prediction: Enisei by 8.

Worcester v Dragons (Pool 3)

Premiership strugglers Worcester entertain the Dragons at Sixways in what is billed as a must-win game for the Warriors. A win for Worcester will see them leap-frog their Welsh opponents providing the Dragons don’t pick up a losing bonus point on the way. However the Warriors are yet to win in the competition this season, so confidence will be low – giving the Dragons an opportune time to pounce when they are most vulnerable.

Prediction:  Dragons by 4.

Blues v Bath (Pool 4)

Pool 4 looks set to be contested by both of this week’s opposition, with both teams recording wins in their opening two fixtures and opening up a healthy lead on strugglers Bristol and Pau. Premiership flyers Bath will be reeling from their excellent display against leaders Saracens in the league last week with the intention of topping the pool at the conclusion of this round. Despite the Blues’ good run in Europe so far this season, it can’t be said for their domestic form in the Pro 12. A strong attacking approach from Bath could make light work of Blues’ defence if they’re on-song in Cardiff and may prove the stronger of the two.

Prediction: Bath by 3.

Bristol v Pau (Pool 4)

Bristol will be set on securing only their second win in all competitions, as they welcome French club Pau to Ashton Gate. With Bristol’s points tally still to get off the mark, you feel a win is in them after some good performances in the league of late. Pau’s fortunes have been mixed based on their recent form, having beat Top 14 table toppers Clermont at the weekend but failing to get off the mark in the Challenge Cup. Pau’s big name players in Steffon Armitage and Conrad Smith could prove fruitful for the French club’s first win, but Bristol will be sure to make a fight of it.

Prediction: Pau by 3.

Timisoara Saracens v Harlequins (Pool 5)

Romanian club Timisoara haven’t had the best start to their European campaign, with two heavy losses in their two games. Second-placed Quins started their campaign well beating Stade Francais before going down by a point to Edinburgh in round two. Quins’ power and strength should prove too much for Saracens, but their home-tie resilience could pay off and a good 80-minute performance could be enough to secure a losing bonus-point.

Prediction: Quins by 12.

Edinburgh v Stade Francais (Pool 5)

Top of the pool Edinburgh welcome a Stade Francais side who have had a mixed bag of form so far this season. The Pool 5 tie could be one of the weekend’s picks, particularly with Edinburgh’s attacking strength and Stade Francais’ at-times, all-at-sea defence. With two bonus points for the Scottish side already in the campaign, it’s difficult to see how Stade will penetrate the defence. Stade’s away record in Europe doesn’t make for good reading – not winning on the road since December 2015. A win for Edinburgh could be sure to make them outright winners of the Pool and can begin to look ahead to the knockout stages.

Prediction: Edinburgh by 10.

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