Challenge Cup preview

Date published: October 13 2016

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

Montpellier were last season’s champions after defeating Harlequins, but who are the contenders this time around? 

Let’s take a closer look at the teams.

Pool 1

Bayonne are bottom of the Top 14 standings with just one win from eight games and will need a big effort to turn their fortunes in Europe around. Two of the other three teams are also in the bottom half of their respective competitions so it’s not the toughest group in the world.

Like Bayonne, Treviso are also struggling this season and are second from bottom in the PRO12 with one win from six. They will struggle to get out of this group but it’s not impossible.

Gloucester are the third team in this group with only one win so far this season. They have struggled to get going in the Premiership but will fancy their chances in a competition they won two years ago.

Considering they are third in the Top 14, La Rochelle will be favourites to top this group and progress to the next round if their form up to now is anything to go by.

One to Watch: Victor Vito (La Rochelle)

The New Zealand loose forward is a skillful player and brings plenty of physicality to the party. At 29 he is in his prime as a forward and will look to make a big impact for his team up front.

Pool 2

Grenoble enjoyed a great run in the Challenge Cup last season, going all the way to the semi-finals, but they have had a difficult start to their Top 14 campaign with only two victories from eight matches so far.

Lyon, who have played in the Challenge Cup twice before, go into this year’s competition on the back of a 27-22 win over Pau in the Top 14 last weekend. They have great experience in seasoned European campaigners like Frederick Michalak and Julien Bonnaire and have strike power out wide with Napolioni Nalaga in their back-line.

Ospreys will make their Challenge Cup debut this season after a difficult PRO12 campaign last season. It means Steve Tandy’s men, who came agonisingly close to a quarter-final place in the Champions Cup last term, are looking to re-establish themselves as European contenders.

Newcastle have made a solid start to the Premiership season and currently find themselves mid table after three wins in six games. They enter the Challenge Cup off the back of a win over Bristol and will fancy their chances to qualify for the play-offs.

One to watch: Frederic Michalak (Lyon)

The former France international has a ton of experience, skill and attacking flair and can cover multiple positions. He is also a reliable goal-kicker.

Pool 3

Brive, who have made a solid start to the Top 14, are out to right the wrongs of last season’s Challenge Cup, when they were knocked out at the pool stages after defeats to Newcastle Falcons, Connacht and Enisei-STM. They get another shot at the Russian side in Round Three, but not before facing the Dragons and Worcester Warriors.

Newport Gwent Dragons have had a slow start to the PRO12 season with a solitary win against Zebre. They have reached the semi-finals in the past two season’s but have been defeated by eventual champions Gloucester and Montpellier.

A tough challenge awaits Worcester Warriors who have only been on the winning side once so far in the Premiership. Worcester are winless in their last six away games in the Challenge Cup, losing five and drawing once.

The Warriors make the long haul East to Moscow for their opening clash with Enisei-STM. The Russian side only entered European competition last season, and stunned Brive and Newcastle Falcons on their way to claiming two historic victories from their six pool games. Freezing weather conditions are likely to add to the degree of difficulty for the Premiership side.

One to watch: Francois Hougaard (Worcester)

The South African scrum-half was in good form playing at wing for the Springboks in the Rugby Championship, but will want to prove himself as a better option at number nine for his club. His energy and physicality will be a big asset in Europe.

Pool 4

Bath’s last appearance in the Challenge Cup came in the 2013/14 season when they lost in the final to Northampton Saints having won all eight games on the run in. They have lost only once in the Premiership so far this season and will be favourites to lift the Challenge Cup.

Pau are drifting at the bottom of the Top 14 table after an inconsistent start to the season and will find it tough to get out of this group.

Bristol are still winless in the Premiership but will take solace from their last outing against Newcastle which they almost won. They are competing in European competition for the first time since 2008/09 when they won three of their six Challenge Cup pool matches.

Cardiff Blues head coach Danny Wilson faces former club Bristol for the first time when the River Severn rivals clash at Ashton Gate. Bristol have never beaten Cardiff in European competition before and the Blues will be hoping for more of the same.

One to watch: Tom Varndell (Bristol)

Varndell needs one try to become the outright top try scorer in the Challenge Cup. No player has scored as many tries for one club in the competition as Varndell whose 20 tries all came while playing for Wasps.

Pool 5

Edinburgh are competing in the Challenge Cup for the third season in a row. They just failed to make it out of the pool stage last season, but reached the final in 2014/15. They returned to winning ways after three defeats last weekend with an impressive 45-10 triumph over Treviso.

Timisoara Saracens of Romania are making their first appearance in the Challenge Cup. Timisoara top the Romanian Superliga with five wins from six matches so far this season and boast a number of foreign and domestic talents. And they are targeting two home wins from Pool 5 to equal the best performance of a Romanian side.

Two-time Challenge Cup winners Harlequins were denied a hat-trick of titles in their last European tie when they were defeated in May’s final in Lyon by Montpellier. And Quins will take plenty of confidence from their previous outings at the Stoop this season, beating reigning Champions Cup holders Saracens and, last week, former European champions Northampton Saints.

Stade Français have their own point to prove in Europe and against Quins, having reached the final four times and lost them all, including the 2011 Challenge Cup Final against the Londoners. Stade have lost their last two Challenge Cup away games, the first time they’ve lost back to back away matches in the competition. They will be hoping to halt that run this time round.

One to watch: Sergio Parisse (Stade Français)

The Italian captain is one of the best number eights in the world and a key player for the French club. His experience and leadership qualities will boost Stade in their attempt to reach the play-offs.