Ahead of the first round of this season’s Challenge Cup, we cast our eye over the 20 teams involved who are looking to lift the title.
Stade Français were last year’s champions after beating Gloucester in the Murrayfield final, but who are the contenders this time around?
Let’s take a closer look at the teams.
Bordeaux-Bègles, Dragons, Enisei-STM, Newcastle Falcons
Bordeaux-Bègles have made a solid start to the Top 14 and are amongst the early front-runners in that competition. They have already made their presence felt in France after claiming a convincing win over table-toppers Montpellier and should be involved in a tight tussle with Newcastle to top this pool. The Falcons have been the surprise package in the Premiership this season and are also currently flying high and could go a long way in this competition if they can replicate that form.
The Dragons are amongst the also-rans in Conference B of the PRO14, despite showing flashes of decent rugby. They should be competitive at home but have too little firepower to mount a serious challenge, so third place looks like the position they will have to be satisfied with.
Rounding out the pool are Russian side Enisei-STM, who are playing in the competition for the third straight year. Despite sealing home wins over the Dragons and Worcester last year, they still finished bottom of the pool. They should prove tough at home but expect them to again finish last.
One to watch: Canadian flyer DTH van der Merwe is one of the best finishers in the game and his move to Newcastle from the Scarlets was a good piece of business from Falcons boss Dean Richards. Although 31, Van der Merwe possesses plenty of pace and has an astute rugby brain which makes him a threat on attack. Don’t be surprised if he is amongst the tournament’s top try-scorers.
Cardiff Blues, Lyon, Sale Sharks, Toulouse
Lyon will be hoping to improve on last season’s effort when they finished second in their pool. They were a whopping 14 points behind the Ospreys, however, and eventually missed out on a quarter-final berth. However, they’ve made great strides under the guidance of head coach Pierre Mignoni and are much improved this season. They and Sale will be favourites to top the pool along with another French side, Toulouse, who are making their debut in this competition following 22 successive seasons in the European Cup, a tournament which they won four times.
Sale Sharks have delivered a mixed bag of results in the Premiership despite signing a plethora of players during the off-season. Included amongst those are Wallaby utility back James O’Connor, Springbok scrum-half Faf de Klerk and Scotland back-row Josh Strauss, proven internationals who should give them much needed impetus while try-scoring machine Denny Solomona will provide opposing defences problems.
Meanwhile, Cardiff Blues are struggling in the PRO14 and with head coach Danny Wilson set to leave the region at the end of this campaign, there is plenty of uncertainty in their ranks. They are prime contenders for the wooden spoon in this pool behind the aforementioned trio.
One to watch: Former Stormers and Springbok Sevens stalwart Cheslin Kolbe has made an impressive start to life in Toulouse and has already crossed the whitewash on several occasions. The 23-year-old might be small in stature but has a big heart and possesses one of the best side-steps in the business which makes him dangerous with ball in hand.
Agen, Gloucester, Pau, Zebre
Gloucester, finalists last year and winners of 2014/15’s Challenge Cup, should have no problem topping Pool 3. They possess a wealth of talent and a brilliant coach in Johan Ackermann.
Pau meanwhile have punched above their weight in the Top 14 so far this season and are currently mid-table, showing they’re difficult to break down as well as possessing a resilience on defence. We expect the Frenchmen to finish in second spot behind the Cherry and Whites.
Zebre have claimed comprehensive wins over the Dragons and Kings in PRO14 action this season and sit in fourth place in Conference A. On current form they should have too much for Agen and finish in third but, despite improvements in their game, qualification is a big ask.
Agen are in second-last position of the Top 14 on six points, just above Brive, who have five. Points have been hard to come by with just the sole win from seven fixtures in that division. We might find they swiftly switch their focus to Top 14 survival if they start poorly.
Gloucester, the only side to lift the Challenge Cup in the group, have the best record in the competition and will be happy with their draw.
One to watch: Gloucester centre Henry Trinder‘s class has never been in doubt. But the injuries that have disrupted his career have been ill-timed and cruel. So, to see him gliding around Kingsholm on Saturday, tormenting the Northampton Saints defence with his sleight of hand and quick feet was heart-warming as he grabbed two tries.
Edinburgh, Krasny Yar, London Irish, Stade Français
Edinburgh may surprise many this season. Richard Cockerill has improved things at the club and they are on the rise and could well face a shootout with last year’s winners Stade Français to top this pool. They showed great character against Zebre to end a run of three straight PRO14 defeats and will use this confidence boost going into this competition.
The Russians enter the competition meaning business. Krasny Yar’s squad is made up of Russian, Eastern European, Romanian, and Georgian players mostly, along with two Tongans. This side will be tough and not easy to defeat on home turf. The fact that they are a totally unknown entity could also work in their favour, as many teams may underestimate them.
London Irish don’t boast too many star names, with former All Blacks prop Ben Franks and giant winger Napolioni Nalaga being their highest profile players and even then, the Fijian broke his arm last weekend. The Exiles may face an uphill battle to attain any success in this competition this season, as their defence is also poor at the moment. Their focus, like others in this competition, may well switch to domestic matters.
Stade of course won the title last year, beating Gloucester 25-17 in what was a thrilling final. They did not have a great domestic season though and only finished seventh. However, the prestigious club still boasts some of world rugby’s biggest and most experienced names such as Sergio Parisse, Jules Plisson and Willem Alberts. They will feel confident of progressing out of this pool if they bring their A game.
One to watch: Former Crusaders centre Robbie Fruean was one of the most exciting talents in world rugby before a heart condition hindered his progress. He is now settled in and happy at Edinburgh and is totally focused on having a great Challenge Cup season. Keep an eye on this man known for his speed and power.
Brive, Connacht, Oyonnax, Worcester Warriors
Two of the bottom three teams in the Top 14, the Premiership basement outfit and a struggling Connacht side make up this Challenge Cup pool.
It is fair to say that after just one win apiece in France after the opening seven rounds of competition, Brive and Oyonnax’s focus could be elsewhere if things don’t go their way. Perhaps even from round one we could see second teams named, with the Top 14 taking precedent.
Worcester are also in a similar predicament as they desperately need to break their duck in the Premiership after six losses to start their season. They have accrued just one bonus-point in those games and are currently five points from safety, with their director of rugby also announcing he will be departing at the end of 2017/18. The Challenge Cup though could be the ideal tonic in order to gain some confidence.
Connacht meanwhile struggled to hit the heights of their outstanding PRO14 title winning season last year but despite just missing out on Champions Cup quarter-final qualification, they could hold their heads high after their European effort with four pool wins to their name. This year they return to the Challenge Cup and will fancy their chances of topping this pool as they have plenty of quality in their side.
One to watch: A consistent performer on the wing for Connacht, Matt Healy is set to cause Brive, Oyonnax and Worcester plenty of problems during the pool stage. If he can feed off the likes of centre Bundee Aki and full-back Tiernan O’Halloran, expect this wing to cut loose.