European Rugby Challenge Cup: Permutations Central

Challenge Cup for once looks exciting!

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that this competition grates on me for many reasons. However, the tournament’s pool phase concludes next weekend with several decisions still up in the air. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on where we are and tries to predict what may unfold.

Who will make the quarter finals?

Top Eight (After Round 5)

The only side who are guaranteed a home quarter final is the top seed ASM Clermont Auvergne. The French side secured top spot in their pool with an exciting 48-40 win over Northampton Saints. After that, it is a mess with several sides still in contention for a late quarter final playoff.

Looking at the fixture list next weekend, La Rochelle if serious about this competition should account for Zebre Rugby on the road; anything else and they could be sensationally knocked out of the competition. Sale Sharks host a hapless Perpignan who have not won in a while; expecting a bonus point try win early from the Manchester based club.

Worcester Warriors have won the pool and are at home to Stade Francais who may play a second string squad for the fixture who have a remote chance of making the final playoff berth. Worcester Warriors have being methodological and should do the job based on good set piece and superior work rate.

Harlequins travel to Agen on Friday night. Agen will be delighted to see the back of this tournament; they perennially despise this competition and they will be popping the champagne corks after the final whistle. Their focus is and always will be Top 14 survival. Quins if they perform should secure a bonus point try win here with ease.

Bristol Bears and Northampton Saints have routine home fixtures against Enisei-STM and Timisoara Saracens respective. BP try wins beckon and passage to the last eight. The only team who look vulnerable and I say this because Bordeaux-Begles have played well in the tourney in recent weeks is Connacht Rugby.

The Irish province had a superb 20-18 win over Sale Sharks last weekend. Bordeaux-Begles may decide to call upon several first team stars and their abrasive pack may mean that this game is in the melting point until the third quarter. Cool nerves are required from Connacht Rugby. If Connacht Rugby were to lose, then Benetton Rugby would be main benefactor.

The two vulnerable teams for me on this final weekend are La Rochelle and Connacht Rugby but I think they are playing sufficiently well enough to get results on the road.

Playoff Verdict:

ASM Clermont Auvergne (1) vs. Connacht Rugby (8)

La Rochelle (2) vs. Northampton Saints (7)

Sale Sharks (3) vs. Bristol Bears (6)

Worcester Warriors (4) vs. Harlequins (5)

European Challenge Cup: Round 5 Predictions

One sided contests aplenty on the fixture list

There should be excitement aplenty in this tournament; the penultimate round of fixtures. The round where dreams of tournament success are further revitalized or cruelly dashed. However, this is the European Rugby Challenge Cup and for the majority of teams, it is an exercise in giving fringe squad players more game time in fixtures for quite a few clubs means little. Sad indictment on where this tournament has gone.

The standout fixtures look to be Connacht Rugby hosting Sale Sharks, ASM Clermont Auvergne looking to inflict further pain on Northampton Saints while Ospreys and Worcester Warriors realizing that the victor of their clash will control the Pool 2 (closest to a pool of death in this tournament). Hawkeye Sidekick steps away from his sick bed to provide his verdicts on these fixtures.

European Challenge Cup: Round 4 Permutations

Snow makes fixture scheduling interesting

This past weekend saw predictable victories for some of the fancied teams in this competition but mother nature also made an appearance in Romania where heavy snowfall prevented Timisoara Sarcens vs. Northampton Saints from being played; interesting to see when this game is rescheduled. This blog will look at the playoff picture in the competition. 

Collated Total Points Standings

Who is primed to qualify for the quarter final stage?

ASM Clermont Auvergne have stood out in the pool phase of this competition. They put 49 points on Dragons at home this weekend and pretty much secured of a top seeding for the quarter final appearance given that they have Timisoara in one of their last two fixtures. 

Sale Sharks and La Rochelle had shock defeats this weekend. They potentially should qualify but the losses to Bordeaux-Begles and Bristol Bears at home is a reality check for both. 

Who is on the cusp of the playoffs?

Worcester Warriors win over Pau at home coupled with Ospreys loss to Stade Francais has seen the English side top of their pool but plenty of twists and turns you would imagine will come in this pool. 

Connacht Rugby will be delighted with their road trip performance to Perpignan. Their academy players impressed and a quality last quarter saw a bonus point try secured. A key fixture against Sale Sharks in January will determine their playoff fate more than likely. 

Northampton Saints are currently out of the top eight at this time but with fixtures against Dragons and Timisoara Saracens, they will look to secure bonus point wins in both to consolidate their playoff position. 

Bristol Bears’ win over La Rochelle on the road this weekend has reignited their playoff hopes. Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby are flying the Italian flag as well, a couple of key January fixtures for both Italian clubs to determine whether they play European Rugby quarter final action in the Spring. 

Playoff Fixtures 

If the pool phase completed today (hypothetical given that Northampton Saints have a game more to play out) so it is a loose fixture permutation: 

If Northampton Saint fail to secure zero points (unlikely) against Timisoara Saracens, the draw would be as follows: 

  • ASM Clermont Auvergne (1) vs. Ospreys (8)
  • Sale Sharks (2) vs. Connacht Rugby (7) 
  • La Rochelle (3) vs. Zebre Rugby (6) 
  • Worcester Warriors (4) vs. Harlequins (5) 

If Northampton Saint secure five points (likely) against Timisoara Saracens, the draw would be as follows: 

  • ASM Clermont Auvergne (1) vs. Connacht Rugby (8)
  • Sale Sharks (2) vs. Zebre Rugby (7) 
  • La Rochelle (3) vs. Northampton Saints (6) 
  • Worcester Warriors (4) vs. Harlequins (5) 

European Challenge Cup: Round 4 Predictions

The usual good, the bad and ugly to feature in this round of the competition

If you follow this blog, I have quite a bit of contempt for this competition. No excitement, no television coverage of the tournament and put in the mix sides who are ill-equipped to compete at this level and you have a rugby tournament PR disaster on your hands. The organizers of this tournament should hang their heads in shame. 

This round will see the interested sides stride forward and secure their last eight spot with two rounds to go. For others, it will palpable relief that they are out of contention to focus on domestic affairs and for others, the trauma of the beat down (Dragons, Enisei-STM and Timisoara) that they will receive could take months to recover from. Hawkeye Sidekick predicts the winners, the losers and the massive losers. 

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Round 3 Review

The good, the bad and the downright ugly 

Bless me father, I have sinned, it has being a couple of weeks since my last European Rugby Challenge Cup blog. Here are my transgressions and a look at the playoff picture heading into the fourth round of pool games. 

Overall Ranking Standings

If the playoffs were determined after round three, the following quarter final pairings would be as follows: 

  • La Rochelle vs. Zebre Rugby
  • ASM Clermont vs. Worcester Warriors
  • Sale Sharks vs. Northampton Saints
  • Ospreys vs. Benetton Rugby

Tale of French Interest and Indifference

As usual in this competition, there have being varying levels of interest from the French clubs. Perpignan, Bordeaux Begles, Agen and Stade Francais have decided that this is not a season priority so no surprise that they are out the back and threading water in this competition until January. To the sponsors relief, ASM Clermont and La Rochelle have decided to give the competition a serious go this season and their performances to date have being outstanding to watch. Pau continue to embrace the tournament and are right in the mix in their pool but their ambition and desire for European competition is not reflected with the vast majority of the sides and needs to be looked at by tournament organizers. 

English interest is high 

Sale Sharks are the leading English side in the rankings after round three and with their fixture list including meetings with the disinterested Perpignan and Bordeaux Begles, they should be pretty close to a top seed berth. Chris Ashton and Faf de Klerk have being outstanding in this level of competition as Ashton looks to secure the top try scoring gong before the quarter final stage such is his scoring regularity at present. 

Northampton Saints will advance to the last eight of the competition given that they have Dragons who are struggling for form and performance along with the hapless Timisoara Saracens side. Saints though were wholly exposed in their defeat to ASM Clermont and their domestic form has being inconsistent at best; a side who will do well to get deep in the playoff stage of the competition. 

Harlequins look a good solid bet to go far in this competition but the defeat to Benetton Rugby on the road has raised serious questions on their credentials. Two home games against Grenoble and Benetton Rugby will need to be won with a bonus point each to have any chance of playoff qualification but with Agen in their pool, they still have an outstanding chance of sneaking a last playoff place. A dangerous side if they do get in late. 

Bristol Bears experienced the power and offloading of La Rochelle last weekend and with a road trip to the French side, it looks like their interest in this tournament will be over by Christmas. Bristol Bears league survival is paramount this season, expect squad personnel changes aplenty for the return fixture with La Rochelle. 

Worcester Warriors are involved in the pool of death with Ospreys and Pau for company. A difficult encounter with an abrasive Paul outfit beckons this weekend and depending on results elsewhere could be out the back door and staring elimination from the competition as Ospreys look to pounce on the disinterest of Stade Francais on the road. 

Injuries mounting for Connacht Rugby

The 22-10 home win to Perpignan was another opportunity for a bonus point spurned; the conditions during the contest were horrific with driving wind and rain making the match into a slug fest. Connacht Rugby have used the competition to blood academy talent to first team action but it has also resulted in additional injuries which the club are proactively seeking emergency loans. The scrum-half position depth chart is exposed with injuries at present so it could be a step too far for the Irish province to make the playoffs given the points tallies of other teams around them. The lack of home bonus points so far may come back to haunt the province come January 19th. 

Ospreys look to strike decisive playoff blow 

Ospreys as mentioned are involved in a competitive pool. Pau and Worcester Warriors are providing good opposition as Stade Francais have waned badly in the competition. Ospreys on the road this weekend to Paris and one would expect them to win this contest; it would be a key win given the Ospreys problems away from the Liberty Stadium this season. Ospreys have quality in the pack with Wyn-Jones and Tipuric in the ranks. The Welsh side should advance to the playoffs and with George North in the back line, they will fancy a cut off any of the sides still left in the competition. All to play for some while the vast majority continue to thread water for this competition to end to refocus on domestic league priorities. 

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Round 1 Review

Unexpectedly predictable

The first round of European Rugby Challenge Cup is done and dusted. It was a round where the main contenders flexed their muscles while the teams that we thought would struggle did and badly. Hawkeye Sidekick is not surprised. 

What we learned:

Who wants to win this tournament? ASM Clermont, Harlequins, Bristol Bears, Benetton Rugby, Connacht Rugby, Sale Sharks, Ospreys, La Rochelle, Stade Francais, Worcester Warriors, Dragons, Northampton Saints.

Who want nothing to do with the tournament? Agen, Grenoble, Bordeaux Begles (four hookers brought to Galway, good job it lashed down for the game as the selection would have looked pitiful). 

Who have no chance of winning the tournament? Zebre Rugby (not advancing from the pool), Ensei STM (eighteen points shine of leaking one hundred points) and Timisaora Saracens (overwhelmed all over the park).

Standout Performance:

Harlequins, Sale Sharks, Bristol Bears and Worcester Warriors had keynote wins but the manner in which ASM Clermont disposed of Northampton Saints was quite emphatic. The French side ripped through the hosts at will scoring six excellent well worked tries. Northampton Saints saved face with two late tries to put some points on the board but this was as emphatic a win you will see all season in Europe. ASM Clermont look primed to be the key protagonist in this tourney. Forty-one points scored on the road; impressive. 

Low Point:

The news of abuse to Irish official Joy Neville from Perpignan team and fans last weekend. A decision according to the rule books is a red card. Neville involved the TMO and they made the call. The Perpignan natives got restless and their barrage of abuse to the Irish official was disgraceful. Perpignan’s season spirals out of control. They were already struggling to contain Sale Sharks on the ground when the red card came. A team who could easily down tool on this tournament on the back of that home loss. 

What to expect next week: 

Several epic hammerings look on the card. La Rochelle have a home fixture against Ensei STM where the French side scored eighty-two points last weekend against the same opposition. I think it is safe to say a similar mauling is on the cards; does the tournament no favors. The same goes for Timisaora Saracens who travel to ASM Clermont. Best of luck team, you are getting an absolute hiding of epic proportions. 

Pau and Stade Francais on paper looks a tasty French encounter. Stade Francais after losing to Worcester Warriors at home are in must win territory; will be interesting to see Pau’s team selection and performance after last weekend’s loss to Ospreys.

Sale Sharks and Connacht should be an excellent encounter. AJ McGinty facing his old Irish province, both sides will look to play on the front foot so expecting tries in that encounter.

Worcester Warriors and Ospreys also looks much more tasty compared to last week. Warriors were superb in their win in Paris; strong end to the game and they will look with confidence to face an Ospreys side whose pack wore down Pau to secure a decisive win.

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Preview

Excitement to be saved until next year

If you have read this blog, I have a love / hate relationship with the European Rugby Challenge Cup tournament. The concept is noble but there are glaring issues with how the format has played out in recent seasons; mismatched opposition thumped on the road, French sides for the most part not particularly interested instead focusing on domestic league affairs. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the good, the bad and downright miserable aspects of this tournament. 

The Good

Obviously, it is because of the arrival of several marquee European Rugby teams. The presence of Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys, Harlequins, Northampton Saints, La Rochelle to the competition this season will see some serious playoff fixtures come next April. For now, these teams will look to go through the motions, give squad players sufficient minutes and secure their playoff berth with the minimum of fuss. When you add the likes of Connacht Rugby, Pau and Stade Francais to the mix, the business end of this competition should be superb. I am hoping also that a progressive Benetton Rugby can continue on the upward curve and look to secure playoff rugby too. 

The Bad

The sheer indifference of some French Pro 14 sides to the competition. Who am I referring to? I am referring to the sides who are looking at a relegation scrap and decide that this competition is not a priority sending out representational sides particularly on the road. Agen last season were a case study point. Perpignan and Grenoble may go in the same direction depending how their November league form fares. It is a serious issue for the tournament organizers. 

The Miserable

I applaud the efforts of Ensei STM, Timisoara Saracens but unless there are some serious upsets, both these sides look primed for epic hammerings. What is the point and lesson for these sides having to endure heavy loss after heavy loss? I am struggling for answers. There should be a third tier competition for teams such as this and potential tournament organizer ingenuity to have developmental teams setup in Berlin, Bonn, Moscow, Madrid, Lisbon, Helsinki, Brussels, Amsterdam, Stockholm. These teams could be formed using players who are out of contract or representing countries playing in Tier Two competition. Ensei STM host La Rochelle in the early hours of Saturday morning, hopefully not a hammering but the return leg could be a 100+ point concession. 

Pool 1 Preview:

Northampton Saints entertain ASM Clermont with Nigel Owens officiating. It sounds like a Heineken Cup fixture but it isn’t. Clermont made to pay for an injury plagued second half of last season finishing just far enough away from the relegation spots. Northampton Saints also had a wretched season costing Jim Mallinder his job. The performances thereafter did not improve much and the off season has seen several keynote departures. Both sides will fancy their chances of rebuilding form and confidence in this pool with Dragons and Timisoara Saracens for company. Dragons at home will rise for the visits of Northampton and ASM Clermont but squad depth issues will be ruthlessly exposed. Timisoara Saracens are cannon fodder unfortunately. ASM Clermont and Northampton to advance from this pool. 

Pool 2 Preview:

A genuinely solid pool here. Pau were a side who embraced the competition and got to the last four losing away to Cardiff Blues. I have a soft spot for the team given the Munster Rugby association (i.e. Butler, Mannix). Pau will be up against it with Ospreys and Stade Francais who both look re-energized after poor seasons last year. Ospreys and Pau clash looks like a tasty pack battle. Stade Francais play Worcester Warriors and it will be interesting to gauge team lineups for each side. Warriors have had a couple of keynote domestic results but is relegation concerns going to determine team selection? Potentially one team getting out of this pool with plenty of twists and turns. Ospreys get the edge based on the fact that the French sides may cancel each other out in their home fixtures. 

Pool 3 Preview: 

My pet peeve on understrength team selections could rear their head in this pool. Perpignan who are propped at the bottom of Top 14 may use this competition to rest front line players for a November league push. Bordeaux Begles are infamous for sending over less than stellar match day squad so it is a straight fight between Connacht Rugby and Sale Sharks to secure top spot. Connacht Rugby have shown promise under Andy Friend and Sale Sharks have impressed this season with some key cameos particularly AJ McGinty. Connacht Rugby potentially get the edge to advance and potentially Sale Sharks as well if the French sides in this pool give up on the competition come round three. 

Pool 4 Preview: 

Ensei STM will be a daunting road trip for Bristol Bears, Zebre Rugby and this weekend’s opponents La Rochelle from a linguistics perspective but the playing side should straightforward. Yes, Stade Francais were upset there last season but it was an one off. Ensei STM are five points fodder for all other pool opponents. La Rochelle look the class act in this pool with Bristol Bears potentially advancing to the last eight of the competition on the basis of the fact that they secure ten points from Ensei STM. 

Pool 5 Preview:

This is a huge opportunity for Benetton Rugby to impress. The Italians are a live threat based on their Guinness Pro 14 performances. Grenoble’s ambitions in this competition are unclear and I fancy Benetton Rugby to win their opener. Harlequins and Agen face off at the Stoop and I would be shocked if Quins do not hammer Agen given the French side’s history in this competition. Harlequins to top the pool with Benetton Rugby potentially securing a playoff berth if other results go their way in January. It would be great news for Italian rugby if that happened. 

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Round 2 Preview

As I write this blog, the perennial French road trip performance on European Rugby Challenge Cup is ensuing at a rate of knots. Gloucester have 54 points already on the board against hapless Agen; embarrassingly easy for the English side. Hoping that the other games this weekend are better in terms of competitiveness.

Top Fixtures

Toulouse vs. Cardiff Blues potentially has the look of a fixture which could produce some superb passages of play. Toulouse are looking to build this season. A draw against Sale Sharks away is proof if proof was needed that this French juggernaut has plenty to work on before challenging for domestic or European honors again. Cardiff Blues trounced Lyon who showed little regard to the competition with their squad selection. Pro 14 league is their priority. Cardiff Blues if they can remain in the game into the second half could cause the upset. Both sides will look to throw the ball around a bit and the breakdown battle will be fascinating. Toulouse edge it but it will be a tough encounter.

Connacht vs. Worcester Warriors at the Sportsgrounds on Saturday afternoon should be an interesting fixture. It will see Peter Stringer and Donnacha O’Callaghan return to the native sod and face the Irish province. Both teams had excellent wins over Oyonnax and Brive respectively. Connacht’s win in Geneva was probably a standout performance from the opening round. Warriors pack are young but inexperienced and this is where the Connacht front five have the advantage; fancy Kieran Keane’s men to win this encounter to assert dominance on the pool. Windy conditions expected in Galway so expansive play could be a stretch.

Krasny Yar vs. Edinburgh. A week ago, this fixture would have being an afterthought but the upset result in Krasny Yar means that this fixture is a top of the pool fixture. Edinburgh have being duly warned that this fixture has banana skin written all over it. Edinburgh’s home win over London Irish saw a gradual increase in confidence in attacking play, a bonus point try win which will have pleased Richard Cockerill. The distance to Russia is a factor but would expect Edinburgh to be more cohesive than Stade Francais were last week. Edinburgh get the nod here but it will be interesting to see how competitive Krasny Yar actually are. Was their win last weekend a flash in the pan?

Lyon vs. Sale Sharks should see Lyon naming a squad with several first team players who will add quality to the pack and back line. Sale Sharks draw against Toulouse shows that the side are a dangerous proposition for Lyon particularly if the French outfit decide to play an identical squad to last week. It all depends on the Lyon squad selection; their first team matchday squad should destroy Sale Sharks but given their attitude to the tournament last weekend, it will be a mixed squad selection. Expect a tight encounter and don’t rule out a road win here!

Bordeaux Begles vs. Newcastle Falcons is a fixture which on current team form should be a cracker. Dean Richards’ charges have being the surprise package of the Aviva Premiership. An abrasive pack and with Toby Flood controlling team affairs superbly from ten, it is a fixture which Newcastle should target the road trip. Yet again, remain unconvinced on Begles attitude to the competition. A facile win over Ensei-STM last weekend; squad selection this weekend will speak volumes. Hopefully they embrace the competition as this has the potential to the game of the round. Slight edge for Newcastle Falcons who look serious to compete in this tournament this season.

Stade Francais vs. London Irish. If not for a little bit of pride, Stade Francais must come and produce a performance for their supporters this weekend. Krasny Yar upset loss must rank as one of the lowest points of this illustrious club’s history, a result which may consign the fate of several fringe squad members. London Irish are struggling in the Aviva Premiership; outgunned on both sides of the ball. Stade Francais should be a team looking for retribution, expect a bonus point win and pride someway restored as several first team players will be recalled to save face!

Yawn fixtures

Brive vs. Oyonnax could be best described as a fixture where both sides have zero interest in the competition. Both sides’ attitude last weekend left plenty for tournament organizers to mull over; two French clubs who see domestic league survival as the be all / end all. This tournament does not even register in priorities, expect two second string sides with Brive slightly edging the fixture by virtue that they are at home and the home support will look for some degree of entertainment.

Ensei-STM vs. Dragons looks an arduous task for the Russians. Little progression from last season and a loss to an experimental Bordeaux Begles outfit spoke volumes. Dragons have to contend with the massive road trip like Edinburgh but Bernard Jackman’s charges showed good moments with a loser point against Newcastle Falcons on the road. Dragons will secure the bonus point try well before the interval; only weather conditions can prevent an absolute cricket score here. Another tournament organizer fixture mismatch.

Zebre vs. Pau is a fixture where Pau will look to build on the home win over Gloucester Rugby last week. Mannix and team selection will be interesting. Do they go with the mindset of Brive and Oyonnax and rest the majority of their first team squad? Zebre were exposed over a rampant Agen last weekend, not a good sign for Michael Bradley’s developmental squad. Pau may win, but this could be a snooze fest considering the squad selection of the French.