Amlin Challenge Cup 2013/2014 Preview: Pools 1-2

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POOL ONE

Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque
Currently eight points adrift at the bottom of the Top 14, Biarritz have suffered a dismal start to their season. Four home defeats, eight losses in total, and only one win under their belt; there is nothing sunny about this part of the south of France at the moment.

They will have to play serious catch up rugby for the rest of the season, and herein lies a fantastic advertisement for structural change to the current European set up. Biarritz’s woeful campaign so far will mean that any thought of European silverware has (or should have) been cast aside. They need to now concentrate on staying up in the Top 14. They will likely use the Amlin as an opportunity to rest their starting XV, and to blood their upcoming players.

Oyonnax
Oyonnax are the second French representative in Pool One, and are faring far better than their Biarritz cousins. Although still only lurking around the bottom of the table, it is important to remember that this is their first outing in the Top 14, having gained promotion last season. They have managed four wins, including a 30-19 win over Clermont Auvergne; a better scalp could not be wished for. They should not be underestimated.

That said, they may well suffer from the same affliction of Biarritz (as will be seen, this could be the bane of Pool One), in that they must retain their position in their respective home league. Their main goal will be to stay up. Although I am sure they will back themselves in Europe, it is also their first outing into the European Cup system. It is a steep learning curve, as Exeter and other upcoming teams have learnt in previous seasons.

Sale Sharks
After enduring the humiliation of last season, and being picked as many pundits’ favourites to go down this year, the sharks have bared their teeth and seem to have found their bite again. Despite a disappointing home loss to a determined Newcastle Falcons, Sale have racked up two big wins against Gloucester and Bath; the most recent of which demonstrated Sale’s new found ‘backs to the wall’ attitude. Danny Cipriani is once more on the rise, and his game management and all round play has been excellent in his outings so far.

Sale will fancy their chances to top this group, and their solid start to the league will allow the pressure to be eased. Whilst their opposition will have worries at home on the mind, Sale can (for now) relax and have a serious stab at European silverware.

Worcester Warriors
Worcester are in trouble. For the past few years they have been content to languish around the lower half of the Aviva Premiership, safe in the knowledge that they are not a fantastic outfit, but they were never the worst team by any stretch. This season is different. Sale have come out firing, Newcastle Falcons have rallied, and shown that they have no intent of going down to the Championship again. In short, no team is a push over this season. And Worcester are struggling to find a much needed first win. The worrying thing for them is that Newcastle and London Irish – arguably their two weakest opposition – have both already won at Sixways this season.

Worcester are in a similar boat to Biarritz; at the moment, European rugby will be the last thing they will be focusing on. It may sound like I am bemoaning the European system; depicting it as ‘getting in the way’ of the domestic league. This really isn’t the case. It is simply that Pool One is plagued by teams that are suffering from poor form, and troubles at home.

Pool One Final Table
1. Sale
2. Oyonnax
3. Biarritz
4. Worcester

POOL TWO

Bath Rugby
Despite last Friday’s loss away to Sale, Bath are enjoying a very good start to their season, embodied through their new attacking fly half, the mercurial George Ford. Since his arrival at the Recreation Ground, he has made a fantastic impact,clocking up an impressive 239 metres with the ball.

Bath have the luxury of being able to channel a lot of effort into the Amlin. With the upheaval of the Heineken Cup, the English teams that are near the Heineken qualification drop off point (6th in the Aviva Premiership) no longer have to worry about it. This means that they can focus solely on the silverware. Bath will fancy themselves to be serious contenders to reach the finals, and they certainly have the squad to do it. Keeping Ford fit and firing will be key to their success however; he has been so pivotal to their performances, that his absence could prove disastrous.

Bordeaux-Begles
Bordeaux have made quite a statement of intent so far this season; four wins and five bonus points sees them sees them sitting at 10th in the Top 14 table. Not bad, considering only five points separates 10th from 4th. And when we consider that one of those wins was a victory over 3rd placed Toulouse in the opening round, it is easy to appreciate the realistic threat that this side poses. Expect them to challenge for qualification from the pool.

Newport Gwent Dragons
Riding on the back of their opening round win over Ulster, it seems that the Dragons have been out to set the record straight this season. They are currently sitting 6th in the league, ahead of local rivals Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets, the latter of whom the Dragons defeated 23-16 in their encounter two weeks ago. Newport represent a serious threat to any visiting team; they have a potent backrow, and Toby Faletau is gradually beginning to get back to his Lions form after a lengthy rest. They might struggle to travel away to Bath and Bordeaux-Begles however, and the added fixtures may prove a stretch too far for a team which has only just found its feet again.

Rugby Mogliano
The final team for Pool Two hail from Mogliano, Italy. They have yet to record a victory in their European outings, having lost all six of their Pool fixtures last season. Although the Italian game is improving all the time, as demonsrated in the Six Nations and Rabo 12, at this level the gap in class is brutal and unforgiving. Last season, Mogliano conceded a grand total of 52 tries in six games, an average of 8.6 per game. Unfortuantely there has been nothing to suggest those statistics will improve enough to think that Mogliano will be even vaguely contending for a spot in the finals.

Pool Two Final Table
1. Bath
2. Newport Gwent Dragons
3. Bordeaux-Begles
4. Rugby Mogliano

By Will Taylor

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images