European Rugby Challenge Cup 2016-2017 Preview

European action is nearly back with us, this time of year always brings excitement but that’s mainly reserved for the Champions Cup when the top clubs in Europe clash. The Challenge Cup has a much more mixed reaction as some clubs rest players to concentrate on domestic matters.

So how does it all work?

Teams are split into 5 pools of 4 teams. Each team will play the others in their group home and away, so a total of 6 games. The pool winners and the best 3 runners-up will qualify for the quarter finals. As teams are seeded on points, even once a team has won their pool they might be pushing for a home quarter-final.

The final will be held in at Murrayfield in Edinburgh on the 12th of May.

So what do you mean resting players?

Historically teams have rested players especially for away games. This is mainly aimed at the French sides that have sent some very weak teams for away games. However English sides have changed entire match day squads for games in this competition too. Avoiding relegation or finishing higher up in their domestic league to make the playoffs is seen as being more important. For a range of people’s views have a look at the replies to the my Tweet on #RugbyChat this week.

Pool 1

La Rochelle
Gloucester
Treviso
Bayonne

LA Rochelle have been the standout team in the Top14 this year and really could go a long way in this competition. However last season they didn’t take the tournament seriously and finished below Treviso in their pool. With the possibility of making the Top14 playoffs I can’t see that changing this time around.

Gloucester have gone well in this competition the last coupled of seasons. Again they must be favourites to top the group. They have been up and down in the Premiership this season allowing Tigers and Exeter to come back in games but they probably won’t meet that level of opposition in the pool stages here.

Treviso have dropped down from the Champions Cup this season and with no relegation in the Pro12 will be able to concentrate on this competition. Other Pro12 sides might not as they aim for the top 6 and Champions Cup qualification but for Treviso it really comes down to their 2 games over christmas against Zebre.

Bayonne are bottom of the Top14 and this tournament will be seen as a distraction from trying to avoid relegation. They will want to save face at home in front of their home fans but away we will probably see very weak teams.

Pool 2

Ospreys
Grenoble
Newcastle Falcons
Lyon

The Ospreys have had a really good start to the season and sit just 1 point off top spot in the Pro12. They are certainly a side that could go deep into this competition and whilst Welsh sides have a poor record in Europe this could be a step to rectifying that.

Grenoble are a side that I thought might go well but as they sit second from bottom in the Top14 this is another side that will see this as a distraction I feel.

Falcons have have a really good start to the season and sit in sixth which for a side that many predicted would be fighting relegation is great. That gives Falcons a bit more room to target this competition is they want to. Last season they didn’t do enough to get a best second place and it will probably come down to how Lyon view this competition.

Lyon were promoted into the Top14 this season so you would imagine that the Top14 would be their only priority. They have started decently sitting in tenth but it is a very tight table so I think that they will again not commit any resources to this that might threaten their Top14 performances.

Pool 3

Brive
Worcester Warriors
Newport Gwent Dragons
Enisey-STM

Brive are sat in mid-table in the Top14 having had a decent start. Last season they were a 3 and 3 team so very typically French. But looking at the pool they must be thinking that they have a great chance of progressing. I’m hoping they give it a crack but I’m not confident.

Worcester sit second bottom of the Premiership with the second worst defence. Their first game is to the far reaches of Russia and as we saw last year it’s a difficult trip to some very cold conditions. I think that whilst they will see there is a great opportunity to qualify from this group they will also be thinking about the Premiership especially if Bristol pick up a win soon.

Dragons are in their normal place of tenth in the Pro12 just a head of the Italian teams. At the moment they have off-field uncertainty as they look for a new owner and I can only see this season being a long old struggle for them.

Enisey are back for a second year, the team from Russia put up a good fight the last time around and picked up 2 wins. Doing the same again with a couple of home wins is definitely a possibility.

Pool 4

Cardiff Blues
Bath
Pau
Bristol

 

I see this one as a 2 horse race between Cardiff and Bath, both sides will be disappointed with last season and have kicked off this season well. Wilson has had a season to get his structures in place at Cardiff and it’s bearing fruit. Blackadder is much earlier into his term at Bath but already there have been good signs as they sit third in the table. The games between these 2 will decide the group and I think Cardiff might take it.

Pau are another French side that will see this as a distraction as they sit just 1 place above relegation at the moment.

Bristol are struggling in the Premiership with only 2 points from their opening 6 games. They might try to use this to gain some confidence and momentum but it’s going to be a tough ask.

Pool 5

Harlequins
Edinburgh
Stade Français
Timișoara Saracens

This is the closest pool to a group of death and you have to feel sorry for Timișoara from Romania. I can see them losing all their games if the others take this tournament seriously.

Harlequins made the final last year losing out to Montpellier and interestingly beat Stade in the final in 2011. So they have pedigree and must be 1 of the favourites for the while thing this time. State are another that could go all the way even if they have been a bit rocky this season but then so have Quins. Finally Edinburgh only just missed out on the quarter finals last year and this is their best chance of silverware so they should target it.

So that means I’m predicting the following teams to make it into the QFs:

Gloucester
Ospreys
Newcastle Falcons
Brive
Cardiff Blues
Bath
Harlequins
Stade France

If I have all of those right, it will be a miracle but it’s fun to have a go.

Please do join in with my prediction league on SuperBru.

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