The penultimate round of the European Rugby Challenge Cup pool stage will provide a better picture of who will be quarter final bound in April. A round which is critical for several teams to make a push for qualification. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.
Pool 1: Falcons primed for home quarter-final berth
Newcastle Falcons play host to Ensei-STM this weekend at Kingston Park knowing that a bonus point win will pretty much guarantee home field advantage in the quarter finals.
After a sensational 28-20 win over Exeter Chiefs last weekend, confidence will be high in Dean Richard’s camp and unfortunately I do not see Ensei-STM posing many problems for the Aviva Premiership outfit.
A bonus point try point will be secured well before the final whistle with the relentless offloading game of the Falcons proving too much at times for the Russian outfit.
The other fixture is in this pool sees the Dragons travel to Bordeaux-Begles. With both sides locked on eleven points, the objective is simple this weekend. Win to progress to the final pool game to determine their destiny.
It remains to be seen how serious Bordeaux-Begles will take this fixture. The word indifferent comes to mind given their performances back in December.
Dragons are facing an incredible injury crisis at present and given that their youthful squad were dismantled with ease by Scarlets last time out, it is hard to see how Bernard Jackman can lift his troops ahead of this crunch fixture. Home win.
Pool 2: Evenly poised
This destiny of this pool will be more clear come Sunday evening as the four teams in the pool still are well in the hunt to top the pool.
Cardiff Blues and Toulouse once upon a time was a marquee fixture in the Heineken Cup. How things have changed? Both sides are in transitional phase with the French giants in danger of missing out on a quarter final berth.
Blues had a terrific road trip victory over Toulouse earlier in this pool but the results and form since then have being a little inconsistent. This is a fixture where the Blues pack need to front up against a physically imposing Toulouse front five.
Toulouse’s approach to this fixture will be interesting. A team who have embraced European Cup competition historically. The Pro 14 league campaign has being mediocre to say the least; issues from last season where the pack have being overpowered in second halves of games still apparent.
This is an intriguing fixture for the neutral and one where home field advantage could prove crucial. Cardiff Blues mobility in the pack and breakdown skill set looks superior to Toulouse. Josh Navidi to be a prominent figure. Home win. Toulouse to crash out of Europe.
In the other pool fixture, Sale Sharks minus AJ McGinty face Lyon. Yet again, the approach of the French outfit will be interesting ahead of this game. I expect their squad will be mostly fringe players with some first team players who require further game time as they focus on Pro 14 title ambitions which has dipped in recent weeks.
The injury to McGinty is a bitter blow for Sale Sharks as the USA International has progressed well this season providing assured game management and kicking game but James O’Connor can transition into the position and expect fireworks if that happens.
Such an important game for Sale Sharks and expect the likes of de Klerk, McGuigan and Beaumont to lead from the front. Home win again as Lyon’s experimental squad selection will lack the cohesion to win the contest.
Pool 3: Pau and Gloucester to win
This is a two horse race to see who wins this pool. It will all come down to the final pool game at Kingsholm when Gloucester Rugby host Pau.
Both sides should have too much for their opponents this weekend. Gloucester Rugby will be keen to right the wrongs of last weekend and the careless manner of their defeat to Northampton Saints at the death.
A road trip to France is never easy but Agen have shown zero interest in this competition. Even with a first team selection, they are in serious danger of being thumped by a pacy Gloucester outfit. Bonus point road trip win for the Aviva Premiership side.
Pau entertain Michael Bradley’s Zebre Rugby who will look to compete for long periods of this fixture. Pau will know the strengths of Zebre given their road trip scare earlier to the same opposition in the pool phase last year.
Buoyed by recent domestic form upturn, Pau’s pack will build the necessary platform to secure a bonus point try win over the Italian outfit.
All roads lead to Gloucester Rugby on game day six. Both Pau and Gloucester will qualify but in which order remains a uncertain right now.
Pool 4: Edinburgh vs. Stade Francais is the standout
The Friday night lights clash of Edinburgh and Stade Francais looks the marquee fixture of this competition this weekend. Both sides will look to entertain with expansive running lines.
Edinburgh Rugby under Richard Cockerill have progressed well in recent months. The home win to Glasgow Warriors, doing so fourteen players for most of the contest was a huge morale booster.
The side has played some excellent rugby. The South African Guinness Pro 14 road trip saw the side played well against the Cheetahs and a bonus point try win over the Southern Kings highlighting the skill set of Hidalgo-Clyne.
The hope is that Stade Francais will field a strong outfit in this fixture. Murrayfield under the lights deserves two well matched sides going at it.
The French side have plenty of threats with the likes of Parisse, McLeod, Bosman in their ranks. Geraghty may get the nod at ten and the former London Irish fly-half has played well in this competition.
The proverbial cracker beckons, hard to call but Edinburgh’s hunger and appetite for this competition should just see them over the line but Stade Francais cannot be written off.
The other fixture is a dead rubber. London Irish who have disappointed this season on all fronts play Krasny Yar who may fancy an upset but I do not see that happening. London Irish’s pack to provide the platform for a morale boosting victory.
Pool 5: Connacht look to secure home quarter-final
Connacht Rugby’s decision to rest Aki, Dillane and Marmion last weekend was primarily because of this upcoming fixture away to Worcester Warriors. Put simply, Connacht Rugby victory guarantees potentially a top two quarter final seed and a home tie.
Worcester Warriors are seven points behind the Irish province but they know that victory here will reignite their European Challenge Cup ambitions.
A side stacked with talent and experience. O’Callaghan continues to provide leadership and work rate in the front five. Denton at eight is a superb ball carrier. Josh Adams has being a revelation on the wing; his try haul immense. Connacht beware!
Kieran Keane’s charges endured a miserable second half performance to lose 39-13 to Munster last time out. The performances in the other festive period Irish interpros were excellent so a repeat and the road trip win required is achievable.
A marquee fixture in this competition. Connacht Rugby to be realistically considered a top contender for this competition need to produce a performance and road trip win.
Yes, they will more than likely beat a much changed Brive side the following weekend but it is weekend’s like this that define teams and success. Slight edge for Connacht Rugby here in an entertaining contest, the front five battle will be interesting.
The other fixture here is a dead rubber. Oyonnax are destined for Pro 14 relegation and this competition has continued in the same abysmal fashion. Brive if interested in this fixture should win but this is a French fixture, anything will go, who cares? Both are out of this competition. Toss of a coin. Brive to win.