Amlin Challenge Cup 2013/2014 Preview: Pools 3-5

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POOL THREE

Brive
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.

Bucuresti Wolves
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.

Rugby Calvisano
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.

Newcastle Falcons
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
1. Brive
2. Newcastle
3. Bucuresti Wolves
4. Rugby Calvisano

POOL FOUR

Bayonne
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.

FC Grenoble
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.

London Wasps
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.

Rugby Viadana
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
2. Grenoble
3. Bayonne
4. Viadanna

POOL FIVE

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.

London Irish
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.

Lusitanos XV
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.

Stade Francais
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

17 thoughts on “Amlin Challenge Cup 2013/2014 Preview: Pools 3-5

  1. Must say I chuckled when I read “Wasps should be eyeing the Amlin as an opportunity to vault into the Heineken Cup next season” – what Heineken Cup?

      1. Haha I like the positivity!

        One of the main reasons I want the Heineken Cup (or whatever the new one is called) to be sorted is that it leaves a Wasps fans season a bit flat. We won’t get relegated, we won’t get top 4. Top 6 made things interesting for us!

  2. Jacob, chuckled at that comment!

    I’m not so sure that Wasps will win their group, I think they could come anywhere from 1 to 3.

    Also good to see Lusitanos in the competition. This to my mind is what a European competition is all about, a chance to showcase some of the best talent from the different leagues and settle bragging rights, but also a chance to develop rugby throughout the continent.

    1. I see no reason why Wasps won’t win their group; particularly as I believe we will focus on this tournament more than the French sides will. Both of these sides will have half an eye on relegation because the league is so tight. Wasps realistically do no have a great deal to play for in the Premiership (as I mentioned above), so I think/ hope that we give the Amlin a real go!

      1. Why Jacob, you’re almost suggesting that Wasps can cruise a little through the league as they won’t get relegated yet won’t be challengers, so can concentrate on the cup. Surely that’s not possible in the most competitive league in the world, only us lazy arsed Celts can skip through the league and hence put all our rested and best players into the HC?

        1. This really wasn’t an attempt to start a debate on the relative strengths on any of the leagues Brighty.

          All I am suggesting is, Wasps are more likely (I am hoping) to put more focus on the Amlin than the French sides. That makes me a little more confident that we will get through this group. We also beat Bayonne quite comfortably in recent seasons.

          Did I mention the Celtic league once in my original comment? Not sure why you’ve jumped on that…

          1. It was a delib facetious and sarcastic comment. I know what you meant – I’d say it’s a valid point. There will always be solid 7th/8th/9th placed sides in a league who may look at something like the Amlin and see it as a better vehicle for top flight Euro rugby next season than getting into the top 6. I have no issue with this – it’s just that with some of the bilge coming out of England recently (Cockerill, PRL, etc.) you’d swear that no English team would ever be in such a position yet us Celts are all sunning ourselves on tropical paradises until the HC comes round.

            1. “I’d say it’s a valid point” I meant your point was a valid point. My point was a delib attempt to use humour (sarcasm) to highlight the disparity between what you are saying (which again, I agree with) and what a lot of the English establishment (and some of the fans) try and tell us Celts i.e. that we’re the only ones who can afford a “cup only” focus. The humour failed, I get that a lot.

              1. Ah I see, apologies the humour was lost on me!

                I do agree with you; different clubs will always put focus on different areas and there shouldn’t be an issue with that.

                The one thing I would say if the views on the Amlin. Then I say I’d rather Wasps focus on the Amlin, it wasn’t because I want to use it as a way to qualify for the Heineken (if the tournament exists), but because I’ve missed watching Wasps have a good European Cup run the last few years!

                Your comment (and many from Celtic league fans), highlights the difference in the respect for the Amlin. To you, it is “a better vehicle for top flight Euro rugby next season than getting into the top 6.” (sorry to quote you but the wording made sense). To me, it’s a European competition in its own right that I’d like my club to do well in!

                1. I can see my comment makes it look like that but honestly I don’t think that. As a fan of the only Welsh team to have ever won a Euro cup I value the Amlin highly. I’d still rather be competing for the HC though.

  3. Given the strength of the game in countries like Portugal, Spain and Romania, I rather think that composite teams (such as Lusitanos) should be the norm at this stage.

    It is, after all, the way it works in all highly developed Rugby countries (excepting England and France).

    If you think about it, why should a Spanish club play in this comp, when the likes of Hawick, Cork Constutution or Neath do not?

    This is not a criticism of franchises by the way – it just seems to me that the lower level european game (of which I am a great supporter) is missing a trick here.

    1. “why should a Spanish club play in this comp, when the likes of Hawick, Cork Constutution or Neath do not?” – This is a really good question and is at the heart of a lot of the debate about the HC and the Rugby Champions Cup.

      Cockerill himself said recently – why all the fuss if Leinster don’t make it into the RCC when teams like Bath also might not? Also we all know the focus on the Italian teams as part of the argument for needing to shake things up.

      I don’t think there is a simple answer for two conflicting targets – a European cup of meritocracy. You can only go so far with each one. The PRL bleat on about the lack of meritocracy in the Rabo representation but there is no perfect solution for this. Once you decide “X from each league” or “X from each country” then you immediately have issues where team 7 (to use the top 6 from each league plan) in France could quite possibly be better than team 6 from the Rabo. This is why I detest this part of their argument as their proposal merely moves where the cutoff is; it doesn’t “fix” the problem they are complaining about so it’s just, in my opinion, a smokescreen to redistribute the wealth.

      I come down more strongly on the side of “Euro” than “merit”. I am really going to miss the Italian clubs being in the top comp (probably, we all know they probably won’t get in) as it removes a country from the top comp. We’ll probably remove two countries (Scotland or Wales have a chance of not getting into Top 6 in Rabo) and the comp will be “more intense”, more “meritocratic” but, in my opinion, duller.

      1. My view, as stated above, is that there should be balance. You want the best teams playing, but also a decent spread of nations. There is never going to be a correct answer to this as it is all about compromise. This is something that has obviously been in short supply (from all sides Brighty and it isn’t just Cockers and the PRL who have talked a load of bilge, although they have been probably the two loudest I accept).

        How to get that compromise is the nub of the argument. How do you assess the relative merits of each league and then how do you continually assess the strengths as countries leagues will go up and down over a period of time. When the HC was started, it seems as though the Celtic nations had the upper hand and the strength in negotiations, now it would appear to be with the Anglo/French axis. In 5 years time it might have reverted back, and in 15 years time the Latin countries might be bigger players – who knows!

        The problem is exasperated by the fact that the clubs only really care about relatively short term financial gain, and the spreading of the game is more the responsibility of the IRB and it’s member unions. However the unions then have a responsibility to the clubs as the clubs produce the players for the national teams, and matters are reversed as additional funding for the clubs comes from the unions. And the clubs can’t operate without the sanction ultimately of the IRB.

        Therefore no black and white answer to this solution, only a compromise which will work for a while before becoming outdated.

        Given the personalities involved, I think that I’ve just depressed myself – rugby doesn’t generally breed people to accept compromise on the pitch and this attitude is often then taken on into the administration of the game.

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