The European competitions kick off this week, with the stand-out game arguably Toulon vs Saracens on Saturday afternoon. But the action starts on Thursday night, with an equally interesting game at the Twickenham Stoop. Last season’s beaten finalists Harlequins take on Stade Français in the European Challenge Cup 2016/17 opener, in a repeat of the 2011 final.
This competition often falls under the media radar, as sides often field under-strength lineups. This is of little surprise however, as there is no automatic entry into the Champions Cup for the winner. The prospect of further play-off games at the end of the season doesn’t particularly appeal to many clubs in the Top 14 or Aviva Premiership.
Three Sides to Watch
So James Barker asks “who could be one of the three lucky teams that will earn the right to enter the 2017 Champions Cup in May?”
La Rochelle – Pool 1
The side from the west coast of France has shocked the Top 14 so far, where they sit second. High scoring draws against Clermont-Auvergne and Toulon; as well as impressive wins away at Grenoble and Castres, have contributed to a great start to this season. The signing of veteran fly-half Brock James (pictured) was a major coup.
La Rochelle travel to Treviso in round one, where they should expect a win. Newly promoted Bayonne have survival on their minds, and have already been beaten at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre ground. The ‘crunch matches’ will be in December in a double header against Gloucester. This is almost becoming an annual meeting between these sides in this competition, and here La Rochelle will want to avenge the two defeats from last season.
Bath Rugby – Pool 4
Last years ‘disaster season’ sees Bath back in the European Challenge Cup. While their minds will be on bigger things in the Premiership, they have the quality to progress far in this competition.
Already they have impressed in wins against Northampton Saints and Newcastle Falcons, as well as grinding out a derby win away to Gloucester–despite playing poorly. They have a potentially tricky group with local derbies against Bristol and Cardiff Blues. An away trip first up against Section Paloise could be a banana skin game but they are most definitely favourites to win this group, if not the whole tournament.
Ospreys – Pool 2
The Swansea-based region are making their first appearance in the second tier European competition. A disappointing eighth place finish in the Pro 12 last season left them as the third placed Welsh team. However, in 2016 they lie third in the table this season, after impressive wins away to Champions Connacht and a seven try rout of Cardiff Blues.
The team have a strong mix of young exciting players like Sam Davies (pictured) as well as Welsh internationals Dan Lydiate, Alun-Wyn Jones and Rhys Webb. Ospreys face Grenoble, Lyon and Newcastle in their pool. If they take the competition seriously; an very important caveat applicable to every side, they could go far.
The European Challenge Cup is broken into five Pools of four teams (20 teams in total) with a round-robin to find the top seeded sides;
- Four points for a win, two points for a draw. A bonus point will be awarded to a club scoring four or more tries. A club losing by seven points or fewer, receives one bonus point.
- The five pool winners and three best-placed runners-up will qualify for the quarter-finals and clubs ranked 1-4 will have home advantage for the quarter-finals–scheduled for March 30-31, 2017.
“Main photo credit”