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.