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European Challenge Cup: Opponents preview

Europe returns this weekend and with five Guinness PRO14 clubs in action in the Challenge Cup it pays to be prepared.

But fear not, because we have got you covered with a breakdown of each opponent in Europe’s second tier this weekend – starting with Friday night.

FRIDAY

Cardiff Blues v Lyon
Kick off: 19:00
Venue: BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park

Cardiff Blues got back to winning ways in the league last time out with their second-half comeback victory over the Dragons.

But they will have their work cut out for them this weekend when Lyon come to town.

Pierre Mignoni’s side are top of the Top 14 table after seven rounds of action with only one defeat so far this season.

Indeed they are currently on a four-match winning run and they have two French favourites from seasons gone by pulling the strings in Lionel Beauxis and Frederic Michalak.

The latter has been a part of six European crowns in his time with Toulouse and Toulon but it is surprisingly their defence that has turned heads this season in France. No team has conceded fewer points than them after seven games.

Agen v Zebre
KO: 19:00
Stade Armandie

Zebre come into Europe in fine form domestically, after victories over Ulster and the Southern Kings they ran Edinburgh painfully close last time out to sit fourth in Conference A.

For their first Challenge Cup clash, the Italian outfit will head to the south of France to take on Agen. Newly-promoted to the Top 14 and coached by France legend Phillipe Sella, Agen have only won once in the Top 14 so far this season.

That victory came over Racing 92 at the start of last month, but they have been better than those results suggest, running La Rochelle and Pau very close in consecutive clashes before defeat to Lyon last time out.

Keep an eye out for their southern hemisphere generals who pull the strings, former Springbok Ricky Januarie at scrum-half and Australian Jake McIntyre at No.10.

SATURDAY

Newcastle v Dragons
15:00
Kingston Park

The Dragons under Bernard Jackman appear to be finally hitting their stride in the Guinness PRO14 but the trip to Kingston Park will be an acid test of their development.

Dean Richards’ Falcons have been the surprise packages of this year in the Aviva Premiership, with four wins already leaving them sitting pretty in fourth in the table.

They have already downed Bath on their travels and are unbeaten at Kingston Park this season.

The Socino brothers, Santiago at hooker and Juan Pablo in the centres, have caused a stir while the likes of Toby Flood and Maxime Mermoz are approaching full fitness and could be involved this weekend.

London Irish v Edinburgh
15:00
Madejski Stadium

Richard Cockerill’s revolution at Edinburgh is slowly gathering pace, they have won three from six in the league but defeat at home to Benetton Rugby prompted an outburst from the coach.

But after an impressive run to the final of this competition a couple of years ago, the side from the Scottish capital will want to make a fast start when they head south to the Madejski Stadium.

London Irish are back in the big time this season in the Premiership and started with a bang on the opening weekend as they downed Harlequins at Twickenham.

Since then however, it has been tough going for the Exiles who have lost five on the spin.

Last time out they ran Leicester Tigers close, so keep an eye out for the predatory finishing of Alex Lewington on the wing and the goal-kicking of Tommy Bell at full-back.

While up front they have a World Cup winner in Ben Franks as well as international experience with the likes of David Paice and Blair Cowan.

Oyonnax v Connacht
19:00
Stade Charles-Mathon

Connacht only have one win after six rounds of games in the Guinness PRO14 so will be hoping Europe can refresh the early stages of the campaign.

A trip to the Stade Charles-Mathon is aways tough however, even if Oyonnax have themselves struggled in the Top 14 early on.

They have beaten Agen, and impressively drew with Toulouse on the opening weekend as well as running Pau very close last time out.

But in between that they have fallen to heavy defeats to the likes of Montpellier and La Rochelle.

Fans of English rugby will recognise the likes of Matt Hopper and Ben Botica in the Oyonnax line-up while their forwards are coached by the legendary Jamie Cudmore.

Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie