European Challenge Cup: Opponents preview – Round Five

Daniel Barnes
10 January 2018

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European competition takes centre stage once again this week, with a raft of Guinness PRO14 sides facing their penultimate pool stage challenges in the European Rugby Challenge Cup.

Edinburgh, Connacht, Zebre, Dragons and Cardiff Blues all face crucial showdowns and we have run the rule over the teams that stand in their way.

FRIDAY

Edinburgh Rugby v Stade Francais

Kick-off: 7.35pm

Venue: BT Murrayfield

Edinburgh’s unbeaten Challenge Cup record looks set for the sternest of examinations on Friday evening when they play host to reigning champions Stade Français.

In order to allow the pitch at Myreside to recover from the recent cold snap, Richard Cockerill’s troops will also meet their Top 14 opponents at BT Murrayfield, with its capacity of over 67,000.

Stade are currently eight points behind Pool Four leaders Edinburgh but racked up back-to-back victories in their last two Challenge Cup games, beating Krasny Yar 39-24 before edging out London Irish 26-20 at the Madejski Stadium.

These two teams have met four times in European competition, with the home side triumphing every time – however, Stade Français did win the Challenge Cup by defeating Gloucester at BT Murrayfield in May 2017.

Their league form has been inconsistent this year, but players like Waisea and Sekou Macalou have shown they are a real threat in Europe and will need to be closely watched if selected.

SATURDAY

Worcester Warriors v Connacht

Kick-off: 3pm

Venue: Sixways Stadium

Connacht are another Guinness PRO14 outfit that have done themselves proud so far in this season’s Challenge Cup, winning all four of their Pool Five assignments so far.

They travel to England to lock horns with Worcester Warriors for the second time this season, having run out 15-8 winners at the Sportsground in October.

Worcester’s Josh Adams, who dotted down against Connacht in the two sides’ first Pool Five meeting, is the leading try-scorer in the Premiership, having crossed the whitewash nine times.

The Warriors have also won their last three home games in all competitions and their last four in the Challenge Cup, a run which began in December 2016.

Worcester are second in the standings behind Connacht but a victory for Kieran Keane’s troops will seal a place in the quarter-finals.

Pau v Zebre

Kick-off: 6pm (local time)

Venue: Stade du Hameau

Zebre are tasked with flipping the formbook on its head when they go to Pool Three leaders Pau.

When these two teams met in October, the Top 14 outfit won a thriller in Parma, running out 38-33 winners as part of the 100 percent record they currently hold.

Challenge Cup winners back in 2000, Pau come into this clash off the back of a hard-fought 11-10 win over Toulouse, with full-back Tom Taylor, who slotted two penalties, the fourth-highest points-scorer in France’s top tier.

Michael Bradley’s Zebre have only won one of their three trips to France in European competition to date and come up against a side bristling with confidence.

Bordeaux-Bègles v Dragons

Kick-off: 9pm (local time)

Venue: Stade Chaban-Delmas

Things are finely poised in Pool One – Newcastle Falcons are seven points clear at the top of the standings but the Dragons and their weekend opponents Bordeaux-Bègles are both locked on 11 points.

Bordeaux have won three of their last matches in all competitions, including a 36-27 win over Ensei-STM in the last round of Challenge Cup action.

They will provide Bernard Jackman’s troops a fierce challenge, however, they find themselves under new stewardship, with ex-England skills coach Rory Teague last week named head coach, replacing Jacques Brunel, who departed to take charge of the French national team.

In Matthieu Jalibert and Yann Lesgourgues, they possess the two players with the best average gain-per-carry rates (17.8 and 15.2 metres respectively) of any player to make more than 10 carries in the competition this season, although the latter has now been ruled out for the season with a torn ACL.

SUNDAY

Cardiff Blues v Toulouse

Kick-off 5.30pm

Venue: Cardiff Arms Park

Cardiff Blues have two Top 14 outfits breathing down their necks as they top Pool Two and on Sunday, they roll out the red carpet for Toulouse in a repeat of the first-ever European final.

A Jarrod Evans conversion proved to be the difference between the two teams when they met at the Stade Ernest Wallon, Danny Wilson’s men running out 17-15 winners, while Toulouse also met domestic rivals Lyon twice so far in this season’s competition, winning once and losing once.

Despite their rich history in the Champions Cup – Toulouse are four-time winners – this is their first season in the pool stages of the Challenge Cup.

They have work to do to haul in Cardiff but a win at Cardiff Arms Park would blow the pool wide open.

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

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