European Challenge Cup preview

Date published: October 9 2008

While all the fuss on European weekends will understandably focus on events such as Toulouse v Bath, Leicester v Ospreys, and Edinburgh v Leinster in the Heineken Cup, the second tier of European action will throw up plenty of intrigue for those keen enough to go and discover it.

While all the fuss on European weekends will understandably focus on events such as Toulouse v Bath, Leicester v Ospreys, and Edinburgh v Leinster in the Heineken Cup, the second tier of European action will throw up plenty of intrigue for those keen enough to go and discover it.

The 20-team competition gives some handy exposure to a bigger stage for several players and teams in a professional era where having the likes of Rovigo touring England for a meaningful match are a rarity indeed, or an era where Bucuresti's Oaks and Spain's likely lads from Cetransa El Salvador can show the quality of budding player in their two countries.

True, surprises are a rarity. But they do happen; not two years ago, Bayonne returned from Bucuresti wondering what had hit them, and there have been a notable couple of French scalps taken by vigorous Italian teams as well.

In recent years, winners – with one glaring exception – have come exclusively from England. Bath are the holders, after having been pipped at the post by Clermont the year before. Gloucester, Sale (twice), and Harlequins (also twice) have been the other winners since the turn of the century.

There have been some thrilling finals as well. The Bath-Clermont final was superb, and who can forget the extra-time winner by James Forrester in Gloucester's epic win over London Irish?

It may be a testament to the strength of English club rugby, but it is also a testament to the length of the French season and the financial imbalance in the French league; most smaller French clubs use the pool matches to give reserves some game-time and to give their top players a well-earned rest from the vigours of the Top 14.

But the bigger French teams sometimes arrive with points to prove – witness Clermont two years ago – and there are a couple who could do the same this time around.

Certianly the opening match of the tournament promises to be a cracker when Toulon, the rugby world's most talked-about club at the moment, host Guinness Premiership new boys Northampton.

Every tournament has to have a 'Pool of Death', and that at Felix Mayol is the first of the matches in what is undoubtedly the strongest Pool in the tournament, with Bristol and Montpellier the other two teams involved.

Elsewhere, there could be an interesting race for qualification between Connacht, London Irish and Dax in Pool One, although Dax will most likely be one of those fielding weaker teams for this competition as they battle for survival in the Top 14. Connacht have thrice made it only as far as the quarter-finals, but with a recent win over Leinster under their belts they may fancy their chances to go one or two further this time.

Brive and Newcastle renew hostilities in Pool Four after a pair of hefty clashes in last year's competition, with El Salvador and Overmach Parma making up the numbers there.

In Pool Five, Bayonne and Saracens will have things their way, as Mont-de-Marsan will struggle for strength in depth. But beware Viadana – they gave Sarries a mighty scare in last year's Heineken Cup.

The weakest of the pools is probably Pool Three, with Bourgoin rarely taking Europe even vaguely seriously, Bucuresti and Padova both relatively weak, and Worcester likely to be focusing on avoiding relegation. But the Warriors will probably prevail.

And then we'll see what the quarter-finals throw up. But take a watchful eye away from the Challenge Cup at your peril, for there is plenty to see here.

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