The Amlin Challenge Cup kicks off tonight, and Matt Kellett brings us this preview of the runners and riders.
Pool 1: Harlequins, Connacht Rugby, Bayonne, Cavalieri Prato
Connacht tend to do well in the European Challenge Cup, reaching the semi-finals last year, and they have started better than normal this season, but tend to struggle on the road in Europe. Ian Keatley has impressed in the Magners League and will be looking to continue his good form into the European games.
Realistically though, Harlequins should ease through this group as the winners, as they look to continue their good form in the Aviva Premiership, whilst Bayonne are playing decent rugby at the moment but are likely to be fighting Connacht for second spot. Cavalieri Prato don’t stand a chance!
To Qualify: Harlequins
Pool 2: Sale Sharks, Brive, Petrarca Rugby, Cetransa El Salvador
This pool appears to be between Brive and Sale to qualify, and it should be an interesting contest.
Sale have improved since Mike Brewer took charge in the summer. Plenty of new additions have given the Sharks a breath of fresh air after last season’s poor showing in the Premiership, and they are always tough to beat at home. French teams particularly won’t fancy the trip to Stockport.
Brive are expected to be in a relegation battle this season and may field weakened teams so they can keep players fit for crucial games in the Top 14, but if they do compete, they should push Sale all the way.
Champions of Spain, Cetransa El Salvador, and Italian side Petrarca Rugby will both need plenty of luck if they are going to cause a shock, but they simply aren’t good enough and it ought to be a straight race for top spot between Sale and Brive.
To Qualify: Sale Sharks
Pool 3: Bourgoin, Newcastle Falcons, Montpellier, Exeter Chiefs
Definitely one of the harder pools in the tournament to predict: three of the teams are very similar while Exeter have shocked a few people with their fine start in the Aviva Premiership.
Montpellier have impressed so far in the Top 14 and find themselves in fourth spot, and will be hoping that their league form can give them a huge boost in the Challenge Cup.
Newcastle’s poor start to the season could be forgotten with a good run in the cup, and will be tough to beat at Kingston Park which should stand them in good stead.
I’d expect the Chiefs to throw everything at this tournament and see every fixture as a real adventure. They ought to win their home games, and will revel in their French away trips and could pick up a win or two away.
In contrast, Bourgoin need no reminding of the fact that this season hasn’t gone to plan so far, so they’ll probably be more focused on the league and may write off the cup and field weakened teams, opening the door for Exeter.
To Qualify: Exeter Chiefs
Pool 4: Stade Francais Paris, Rugby Parma, Leeds Carnegie, Bucuresti Oaks
There can only be one winner in this group: Stade Francais may not be as good as they used to be but they should still have too much for Leeds.
The French side hasn’t competed in the Challenge Cup for a long time, but has a real chance of winning the tournament. This pool ought to be easy for a club of this stature, and it’s when it gets to the knockout stage it’ll start to get tough.
Rugby Parma and Bucuresti Oaks don’t look like they’ll surprise anyone, but Bucuresti could take advantage of teams having to travel all the way to Romania and nick a few home wins. Leeds might just spring a surprise at home against Stade, but it’s looking unlikely.
To Qualify: Stade Francais
Pool 5: Gloucester, Agen, Rugby Rovigo, La Rochelle
Both of the French teams in this group have started poorly in the Top 14, so Gloucester have to be favourites for this pool.
Last weekend’s win against local rivals Bath will have given Gloucester plenty of confidence, and they will be ready for what could potentially be a tough group if La Rochelle can show the promise they showed at the start of the season.
Agen and La Rochelle are similar teams, and will both have one eye on the league, but La Rochelle will be looking to impress as it is their first time in the European Challenge Cup.
Agen are also newly promoted but are no strangers to the competition having competed in the 05/06 season tournament. Unfortunately for Rugby Rovigo, they will probably struggle like most of the other smaller sides.
To Qualify: Gloucester
Don’t forget that only the five pool winners qualify for the quarter-finals, with the other three teams coming down from the Heineken Cup (the third, fourth and fifth ranked pool runners-up).
By Matt Kellett