Brive have managed to feature in the quarter finals of every Amlin Challenge Cup – or its equivalent – for the past nine tournaments. They have only managed two semi final appearances; the first being in 2005, and the second being in last season’s tournament. Their results in the Top 14 have been the definition of ‘a mixed bag’. Despite racking up solid wins against Castres and Perpignan, they fell foul of a 50 point drubbing at the hands of Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon; the biggest loss in the Top 14 so far this season. They have also failed to notch up a single win away from home this season, a statistic that will put on huge amounts of pressure to win those crucial home fixtures in the Amlin.
For those of you who don’t know a lot about Romanian rugby – and you could be forgiven if you didn’t – Bucuresti Wolves are a team that compete solely in the Amlin Challenge Cup, and is made up of the best of the players from within the Romanian domestic league. Unfortunately, they have failed to break out of the Pool Stages since their debut season in 2005. This season is unlikely to see a buck in that trend; Newcastle Falcons and Brive are the ones to watch out for. That said, they should fancy their chances to put a hefty score on Rugby Calvisano, whom they dispatched 42-27 last year.
Calvisano are a well respected team who play their domestic rugby in the Italian “National Championship of Excellence”. They were regular Heineken Cup competitors back in the early 2000s, but these days are long gone; they finished dead last in their pool last season. There has been nothing to suggest that will change; although take a moment to appreciate their veteran scrum half and captain, Paul Griffen. Having played 42 full internationals for Italy, he was a standout player back in his day, chiefly for owning a pair of sideburns that would turn Wolverine green with envy.
The English representatives have made a steady start to their season, having bounced back from their opening loss to Bath with away wins at Sale and Worcester. If they continue on their current course, they look set to stay in the Premiership. What has slipped under some people’s radar is the fact that Newcastle have been plagued by injuries pre-season, and their current form is down to their young players stepping up to the mark. With injured players coming back into the fold, Newcastle could potentially see themselves competing for that top spot.
POOL THREE FINAL TABLE
3. Bucuresti Wolves
4. Rugby Calvisano
This is shaping up to be the tightest pool in terms of current form. When you have the likes of Mark Chisholm in the pack, the unpredictability of Joe Rococoko in the backline, and all marshalled by a Lion in Mike Philips, it would be foolish to write these guys off. That said, they are currently under performing in the league, and their big names cannot cover over the fact that they currently stand second from bottom. It might be that retaining their spot in the Top 14 will be a greater priority than the Amlin Challenge Cup.
The second of the pool’s two French teams, Grenoble are currently sitting smack bang in the middle of the Top 14 table, making them a highly ranked team for the Amlin. They have managed a few big wins this season, including a narrow victory over current European Champions Toulon. With this in mind, it goes without saying that they should not be underestimated. They could be potential pool winners, unless London Wasps can find some consistency to their game. Also watch out for their current second string fly half, Olly Barkley, who could very well make an appearance should Grenoble choose to rest key players.
It was not that long ago that London Wasps were challenging for the top prize in European Club rugby on a yearly basis. To long term Wasps fans, the opposition of the Amlin must seem a world away. The start to their domestic season could not have been more heart breaking, yet their narrow loss to Harlequins – which came down to the width of a rugby post – showed glimpses of how potent Wasps can be on the front foot. With a finisher like Christian Wade, and with young talent such as Joe Launchbury, Wasps should be eyeing the Amlin as an opportunity to vault into the Heineken Cup next season, especially as their chance of qualifying through the league is going to be a dogfight.
Whilst you could be forgiven for thinking Viadana will be a walkover, that is almost certainly not the case. Originally watered down into what was Aironi rugby, Viadana was reformed when that particular franchise had its licence to play revoked in 2012. This will be their first appearance in the Amlin since 2009, when they managed to come second in their group. This year, they might find such a feat a tall order considering their opposition. However, this team is not a lightweight by any standard; expect them to cause at least one upset in the group stages.
POOL FOUR FINAL TABLE
1. London Wasps
I Cavalieri Prato
Since their debut in the Amlin back in the 2010-11 season, Cavalieri have managed just one win, which came back in that debut season. Last season saw them leaking around about six tries a game, which would have most teams licking their chops. Although it is unlikely for them to come anywhere near the top, they will fancy their chances of beating the newly-formed Lusitanos XV, and should manage a third place finish.
Last season was not one to remember for London Irish. Alongside fellow strugglers Sale, they were battling to avoid relegation. Those demons are on their way to being exorcised, but Irish still face an uphill struggle this season. However, their recent win against Harlequins will bolster their self confidence immeasurably. Their main challenge will be to overcome French opponents Stade Francais. If Marland Yarde continues to show the form that has had everyone talking about his England chances, Irish will fancy themselves to score tries against anyone.
New to the Amlin Challenge Cup this year, Lusitanos XV hail from Portugal, and are the only Portuguese outfit in the tournament. Their addition follows the withdrawal of Spanish side Olympus Rugby, after financial difficulties. Although their prospects are unlikely to exceed further than 4th or possibly 3rd (their squad will consist of the best players in the Portuguese domestic league) their inclusion really highlights the ambition and nature of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Last year’s losing finalists will be eager to push for victory this year, and considering their group, they should realistically reach the knockout stages. Having had a solid start to the domestic season, their squad is rife with talent. The new arrivals, Digby Ioane and Morne Steyn, will no doubt make a difference once they arrive. And at the back of the scrum, they have one of the world’s most scintillating no.8s, the dynamic Italian Sergio Parrisse. And even if Stade were to rest him, they could just as easily call upon Australian David Lyons, who lined up against Lawrence Dallaglio in the 2003 World Cup Final.
POOL FIVE FINAL TABLE
1. Stade Francais
2. London Irish
3. I Cavalieri Prato
4. Lusitanos XV
By Will Taylor
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images