Another weekend of knockout rugby is upon us, with the European Rugby Challenge Cup kicking off on Friday evening in Edinburgh. With the pool fixtures completed, focus now turns to the knockout stage. Four mouth-watering ties promise to be another memorable weekend of action.
Challenge Cup Quarter Final Preview
Edinburgh v La Rochelle
Top14 leaders La Rochelle are still in contention to win ‘the double’ this season. Despite finishing second in Pool 1 behind Gloucester, the French side have only lost once during the competition. Incoming All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow will be happy with what he has seen, as he looks to join up with former teammate Victor Vito.
La Rochelle go into the European clash unbeaten in all competitions since December and will be firm favourites in the Scottish capital. A key figure for the visitors is Kiwi second-row Jason Eaton. With a competition best of six lineout steals, Eaton could wreak havoc at the set-piece. Edinburgh meanwhile, haven’t mustered a win at home since they defeated Timisoara Saracens in the Challenge Cup in January. Their Pro12 woes see them sitting in ninth place, but their performances in the European competition have undoubtedly contrasted their league form.
It's #ERChallengeCup quarter-final week 🙌
— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) March 27, 2017
Topping Pool 5 and having amassed 24 points in the process. Their form against French opposition could hold them in good stead – winning four of their last six fixtures. Edinburgh will need to be at their best as a strong La Rochelle side will provide no let up in attack.
Bath v Brive
Bath come off the back of their heaviest defeat in the league for 14 years, following the 53-10 demolition at Saracens. The English club have had mixed fortunes in the league, however their European campaign has proved more fruitful. After topping Pool 4, Bath are unbeaten at The Rec in the Challenge Cup this season.
Head coach Todd Blackadder’s men will need to build on their run to progress further in the competition. Yet looking for their first win in all competitions could prove tricky against a Brive side who have only lost once in their previous four Top14 fixtures.
Similar to Bath, the French club have had greater fortune in Europe. They progressed as pool leaders, losing once during their campaign to Newport Gwent Dragons.
Importantly, at home and with a full strength Bath side, it’s difficult to see the hosts losing out. Jonathan Joseph will be a key figure in attack, following a sensational Six Nations with England. He could prove a little ‘hard to handle’ for the Brive defense.
Gloucester v Cardiff Blues
Gloucester could emerge as outside favourites, if they are to overcome Cardiff at Kingsholm. However, it will mean securing their second successive victory, following their win against Bristol in the Aviva Premiership. A feat they haven’t achieved since back to back wins in the Challenge Cup in January.
— Challenge Cup (@ERChallengeCup) March 28, 2017
The English club topped Pool 1 and in the process acquired the second-highest points tally of 25. The home side’s unbeaten European run at home could be the deciding factor.
But in the Cardiff Blues, their attacking prowess in Matthew Morgan will be sure to keep the hosts’ defence on their toes. Topping the stats with meters made (564) and defenders beaten (30), Morgan will be a key figure for the Welsh side in getting on the front foot. The Blues though, have struggled to score tries and of all the quarter finalists, have crossed the whitewash the least.
To defeat Gloucester at home, tries will certainly need to be scored for the Blues.
Ospreys v Stade Francais
Ospreys have undoubtedly been the stand out team of the competition so far. Unbeaten in Europe this season, the Welsh side have picked up try bonus-points in each of their Pool 2 games. They’ve acquired the maximum 30 points during the campaign.
— Challenge Cup (@ERChallengeCup) March 28, 2017
Scoring a competition-high of 42 tries, the hosts will certainly be favourites to land a semi-final spot. Fly half Dan Biggar tops the stats with most points scored (67). Indeed a key man to watch will be wing Keelan Giles, having crossed seven times for the hosts.
Mind you, the Top14 strugglers [Stade Francais] will take Ospreys’ surprise loss to Treviso in the Guinness Pro12 as some comfort in attempting to secure victory. But for the French club–who only scraped into the knockout stage with 20 points–will be short of confidence. The furore surrounding the merger with Racing 92 had a very negative impact on the players.
So with the two sides at opposite ends of their respective league tables, it’s difficult to see past a home win.
The European Rugby Challenge Cup begins March 31 with Edinburgh v La Rochelle at Murrayfield, Edinburgh.
New LWOR Poll Question:
“Main photo credit”