Challenge Cup Preview: Race for quarters on as pools conclude

Peter White
16 January 2020

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The pool stage reaches its conclusion in the Challenge Cup this weekend, with each of the five participating Guinness PRO14 sides knowing there is still all to play for with a place in the quarter-finals at stake.

Dragons, Cardiff Blues, Zebre, Edinburgh and Scarlets all remain in the fight for the knockout stages but know they must deliver close to their best in Round 6 to force their way ever closer to the competition’s showpiece in Marseille.

Four of those teams are battling for one of three runner-up spots with the winners of their respective pools already decided, while Dean Ryan’s Dragons could yet top their pool if results go their way.

FRIDAY

Dragons v Enisei STM

20:00

Rodney Parade

The Newport-based outfit enter their final group game knowing that a bonus-point victory over their lowly Russian rivals will guarantee their place in the competition’s last eight.

And the omens sit in their favour – Enisei have the lowest tackles success rate (78%) this season, while they have conceded the most penalties (66) and yellow cards (7), and are so far winless in Pool 1.

Furthermore, the visitors are still searching for their first ever away win in the competition, while Dragons have won 14 of their last 17 home Challenge Cup clashes and have lost to Enisei just once before, in the first of their five meetings.

Dragons will be keen to overcome last week’s disappointing 42-14 defeat at Castres, and realistically should become the first Guinness PRO14 side to qualify for the quarter-finals on Friday night.

SATURDAY

Cardiff Blues v Calvisano

13:00

Cardiff Arms Park

With their fate largely out of their hands, Cardiff Blues will be determined to record a bonus-point victory over their Italian opponents and boost their hopes of progressing towards the tournament’s latter stages.

The two-time champions enter their Round 6 tie third in Pool 5, two points shy of Pau who will go through with a win over already-qualified Leicester Tigers on Saturday.

Hoping the Englishmen can do them a favour, John Mulvihill will be confident his team can do the business against Calvisano, who travel to Arms Park with five Challenge Cup defeats from five this season.

Blues have won all seven of their previous European games against the Top12 side and will be eager to return to winning ways after back-to-back defeats in all competitions.

Zebre v Bristol Bears

14:00

Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi

Buoyed by hugely impressive wins over Cheetahs and Stade Francais in their last two outings in the Championship and the Challenge Cup, Zebre will be hoping they can build on their recent surge of form by squeezing into the quarter-finals.

The Italians lie second in Pool 4, one place behind English opponents Bristol Bears who have already booked their place in the next round.

Zebre will be keen to capitalise on the fact that Bristol have little to play for and notch their second win over Pat Lam’s team in their fourth Challenge Cup meeting.

All three previous matches between the sides have been won by the home team on the day, and a bonus-point win on their own turf this time round would maximise Zebre’s hopes of progression.

Edinburgh v Agen

15:00

BT Murrayfield

With Bordeaux Begles already through as Pool 3 winners, Edinburgh go into their final group match knowing a bonus-point win will book their spot in the last eight.

The Scotsmen currently lie sixth in the overall rankings, and the 2014/15 runners-up will be confident of a comprehensive win over Agen, who are so-far winless in the competition.

Edinburgh have won all three of their Challenge Cup clashes with the French side – all by 20+ points – while they are unbeaten in Challenge Cup home pool stage games since 1997.

Strong recent form in the Championship has seen them rise to the summit of Conference B, and Richard Cockerill will be determined to maintain that momentum with a strong showing on the continent, too.

London Irish v Scarlets

20:00

Madejski Stadium

With their fate lying in the balance, Scarlets know a bonus-point win at London Irish is likely to be required if they are to qualify for the knockout stages.

Brad Mooar’s men currently lie ninth in the overall standings – just one point behind Pau who occupy the last quarter-final place going into the final round of matches.

A win away at London Irish is no mean feat, with the Premiership new boys having beaten the likes of Wasps and Leicester Tigers so far this term.

But having won all five of their European encounters with the Englishmen – and demonstrated flashes of their potential on their march up to second place in Conference B – Scarlets will be confident of sealing a quarter-final spot at the Madejski.

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