Challenge Cup Preview

Date published: November 12 2015

Ahead of the return of the Challenge Cup, we cast our eye over the 20 teams involved looking to lift the title.

Gloucester were last season's champions after defeating Edinburgh at The Stoop, but who are the contenders this time around? 

Let's take a closer look at the teams.

Pool 1

Brive have started the Top 14 season at a canter with five wins out of eight, largely thanks to Gaetan Germain being the top points scorer in the league with 100 to date. Benito Masilevu is a big threat on the wing.

Now top of the PRO12, Connacht start their campaign by travelling to Siberia but Pat Lam's outfit will fancy their chances in Pool 1, especially at home. Young half-backs Kieran Marmion and AJ MacGinty are an exciting combination.

Russian outfit Yenisey-STM offer a surprise factor – travelling to Siberia is going to be a tough experience for all of the other sides in Pool 1, while the likes of Denis Simplikevich and Yuri Kushnarev have proven their quality in the past.

Finally, Newcastle are bottom of the Premiership after four matches but don't lack talent, especially in the form of winger Sinoti Sinoti. Director of rugby Dean Richards may see this competition as a chance to use some of the more peripheral members of his squad.

One to Watch: Robbie Henshaw (Connacht)

The Ireland star can drop in at full-back or centre and showed his class at the Rugby World Cup. Still only 22, the best is yet to come form Henshaw and he should enjoy attacking defences in the Challenge Cup when used.

Pool 2

Last season was a rapid slide for 2013 Top 14 champions Castres to narrowly avoiding relegation, and with a new coaching staff under Christophe Urios they are yet to fully get going domestically. Expect to see plenty of squad rotation.

Newport Gwent Dragons made strides last season in the PRO12 with some big scalps and have plenty of young talent in their back division especially, with captain Rynard Landman leading the way upfront. Away wins will be key.

Top 14 newcomers Pau won this competition all the way back in 2000 and now with Colin Slade and Conrad Smith signed up are looking to make an impact again under promising coach Simon Mannix.

Sale Sharks round out Pool 2 and will have big ambitions to go far in the Challenge Cup, even though they have started the Premiership season inconsistently. Danny Cipriani will always be worth a watch at fly-half.

One to Watch: Mihai Lazar (Castres)

The Romania prop was an unheralded force at the Rugby World Cup and should show more of that destructive scrummaging ability in the Challenge Cup this season.

Pool 3

Danny Wilson is the new man in charge at Cardiff Blues but early results in the PRO12 have been disappointing. How often the likes of Sam Warburton see action could be key any success for them in this competition.

Harlequins drop back into Europe's second-tier competition after three previous wins in 2001, 2004 and 2011. Recovering from a poor 2014/2015 season is the priority for Conor O'Shea, who has named a strong side for Thursday's opener, captianed by Danny Care.

Jake White's Montpellier squad has plenty of depth, boasting top players such as Nicolas Mas, Nic White and Ben Mowen, and it'll be interesting to see how seriously they take the competition. The Altrad Stadium will be a tough venue for away sides.

Rounding out Pool 3 are Calvisano, who finished with one draw and five losses in their last outing in the competition back in 2013/2014. Former Western Force fly-half Ben Seymour could prove to be a key player.

One to Watch: Jack Clifford (Harlequins)

Big things are expected of Clifford, the former England U20 captain who is battling for a starting spot in the Harlequins' back row alongside Chris Robshaw and Nick Easter. One to keep an eye on.

Pool 4

The defending champions are back after losing to Bordeaux-Bègles in last season's Champions Cup play-off match. Gloucester have huge aspirations and more silverware would go some way to keeping their fans happy, captained by Billy Twelvetrees.

La Rochelle stayed up in the Top 14 last season after some impressive running rugby, spearheaded by Alofa Alofa. France's Uini Atonio offers huge power in the scrum and the side have made a steady start to the new season.

Premiership newcomers Worcester have looked sharp on their return to the top flight, recruiting impressively with the likes of Wynand Olivier and Bryce Heem heading to Sixways. The Challenge Cup may not be their priority though.

Last but not least, Zebre's back-to-back wins in the PRO12 early on this season caught the eye after picking up only three wins in the league in the whole of 2014/2015. The sense is that Andrea Cavinato's side are improving, but perhaps not enough to compete.

One to Watch: Carlo Canna (Zebre)

The 23-year-old fly-half has shown some brilliant flashes this season with his goalkicking and playmaking skills, after being involved in Italy's 31-man Rugby World Cup squad.

Pool 5

Agen return to the Challenge Cup, in which they were runners-up back in 1998. Staying in the Top 14 has to be their priority this season so don't expect to see Agen's strongest XV every week.

Inspired by their young guns like Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Edinburgh were surprise but deserving finalists in the Challenge Cup this year. Matching that feat may not be easy but John Hardie and Nasi Mani will add bite to their back row.

Grenoble's even start to the Top 14 – four wins from eight – sets them up to take a run in Europe and their gritty pack will be a match for anyone with the Stade des Alpes being a hard place to visit.

Things haven't quite gone to plan for London Irish so far this season under new boss Tom Coventry, but with the Exiles' recruitment, including All Blacks prop Ben Franks, they have a chance to distract themselves from what might be a tough battle in the Premiership.

One to Watch: Taylor Paris (Agen)

The Canada star has been nominated as one of the top players in the ProD2 ahead of this year's Nuit de Rugby awards and scored ten tries last season to help Agen clinch promotion to the Top 14 through the play-offs.