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European Challenge Cup: Opponents preview

European rugby is back this week and as we head into rounds three and four it’s crunch time for the Guinness PRO14 sides.

It all begins on Friday night in the Challenge Cup when the Dragons will look to make it back-to-back wins over Russian side Enisei. We’ve run the rule over them and all the other opponents of Guinness PRO14 sides this weekend.

FRIDAY

Dragons v Enisei-STM
Kick-off: 19:30
Venue: Rodney Parade

Fresh from their 32-32 draw with Ulster, the Dragons will be looking to make it two successive Challenge Cup wins by beating Enisei.

The Russian side were the surprise packages in this competition last season, but have found life a little tougher this time around.

After a heavy defeat at home to Bordeaux-Bègles in their opening game, Enisei then went down 28-21 when they welcomed the Dragons to Russia in round two.

For Bernard Jackman’s side, this is a must-win encounter with Newcastle Falcons and the aforementioned Bordeaux also in the pool.

While their form in Russia has surprised many, Enisei have still never won a European game on the road – Dragons will be keen to ensure that first victory doesn’t come at Rodney Parade.

SATURDAY

Zebre v Gloucester
Kick-off: 13:30
Venue: Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi

Zebre come into their clash with Gloucester in good form but face a rejuvenated side who currently sit second in the table in England.

Under the guidance of Johan Ackermann, Gloucester have now won five straight games in the league, and look a force to be reckoned with.

One player Zebre should know a little about is back-rower Jake Polledri, a former Italy Under-20s international who has been getting regular game time in recent weeks.

And with the likes of Ruan Ackermann, the coach’s son, and Billy Burns impressing in recent weeks, this will be a tough task for the Italians.

Sale Sharks v Cardiff Blues
Kick-off: 15:00
Venue: AJ Bell Stadium

Perfectly-placed following their win in Toulouse last time out, Cardiff Blues could take a giant step towards a quarter-final spot with a win in Salford against Sale.

The Sharks are still seeking a first win in the competition, but arrive in form having won four of their last five games in all competitions.

In Faf de Klerk they have a former South Africa scrum-half, who has made a real impact since arriving this year, while the likes of Denny Solomona and James O’Connor provide real firepower in the backline.

Brive v Connacht
Kick-off: 20:00
Venue: Stade Amédée Domenech

Connacht travel to Brive knowing that a win in France will see them move to within touching distance of the knockout stages.

The French side have one win from two so far, and will be all but out if they fail to win this encounter.

Domestically they appear to be in a three-way battle to avoid relegation from the Top 14, so that is also a factor to consider.

However, in their previous home game in the Challenge Cup they did start the likes of Fabien Sanconnie, the France flanker, reliable goal-kicker Gaëtan Germain and scrum-half Florian Cazenave – who like Ian McKinley has recovered from the loss of sight in one eye to play at the highest level.

Quarter-finalists in this competition last season, Brive could prove tricky opposition for Connacht in France.

Edinburgh v London Irish
Kick-off: 19:35
Venue: Myreside

Back from their road trip in South Africa, Edinburgh will be keen to build on that form in Europe, where they are a perfect two from two so far.

They face a London Irish team short on confidence, having now lost nine games in a row in the Premiership.

Irish can at least look to their European form for some consolation, they produced a stunning 44-7 win in Paris over Stade Français in round two.

Still, when the teams met in round one in Reading, it was Edinburgh who ran away with it, taking a 37-14 success and they will be hoping for more of the same this weekend.

There could be a number of familiar faces lining up for London Irish including former Edinburgh skipper Mike Coman.

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 can be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie