Challenge Cup Round Two did not disappoint after an eventful first week, with six away wins out of ten fixtures. Last Word on Rugby rounds up the best of the action, and considers the continuing ambivalence of the French sides in this competition.
Giants Toppled at Home
In 2005 Stade Français and Toulouse contested the Heineken Cup Final. 12 years on, and they are battling just to escape their Challenge Cup pools. How times can change.
After a round one defeat in Russia, Stade capitulated at home to Premiership strugglers London Irish 44-7. The home side by no means fielded a weak line-up. Amongst seven tries for Irish, Topsy Ojo scored on his club-record breaking 281st appearance. To make things worse Stade’s Round One slayers Krasny Yar were dismantled 14-73 by Edinburgh in Moscow.
Two embarrassing defeats for the Cup holders suggest they may ‘give up’ on the Challenge Cup entirely for the remaining rounds.
Meanwhile in Toulouse, Cardiff Blues recorded a famous 15-17 victory to take control of the group. The home side led 15-10 at half time but didn’t score at all in the second half.
Thursday Night Thrashing for Young Agen Side
A less surprising result occurred at Kingsholm, with Gloucester running riot over a very young Agen side. After a bonus-point win over Zebre, the men from Lot-et-Garonne had the chance to stay top of the group. Instead they sent in a side with a number of debutants and an average age of 21… essentially surrendering the match before it began.
Gloucester duly took advantage and scored nine tries in a 61-16 walkover. There was another try for man-of-the-moment Henry Trinder, as well as scoring return for Ben Morgan.
Note: the outcome was similar to how Taranaki in the Mitre 10 Cup rested their top side; when losing 64-33 against Harbour–prior to the semifinals. Sometimes a good decision, but for Agen it might have done more bad, than good.
In the same pool, Pau bucked the trend to become the only French side to top their group. However they certainly made hard work of it, up against Zebre. The Italians raced into a 30-7 lead at half-time; though with only three tries.
Two penalty tries in ten minutes helped Pau fight back, to eventually take all five points in a 37-33 win.
Best of the Rest
The Dragons made their second trip to Russia, and this time were able to defeat Enesei-STM. The men from Newport claimed a bonus point 28-21 win, compared to a 38-18 defeat last season.
There was some joy for French sides, with Lyon and Brive getting their campaigns going at home. League leaders Lyon overcame winless Sale Sharks 27-24 with a late Frédéric Michalak penalty winning the game.
These results unfortunately question again the French attitude to this competition. Of course, this is not to discredit the British sides but these results are certainly upsets. Add in the Newcastle Falcons’ 21-20 victory in Bordeaux, and it does not look good for the Top 14.
Celtic League Sides Enjoy Success
In comparison it looks a lot rosier for the Guinness Pro14, with three pools led by Celtic sides. Edinburgh are the only team with the perfect ten points, whilst Connacht ground out a second win over Worcester Warriors 15-8 in Galway.
It is not all bad. Top 14 bottom side Brive comfortably beat Oyonnax 38-13 in an all-French clash. Who knows what motivation this win might bring to their league campaign. As Aviva Premiership side Bristol will confirm from last season, Challenge Cup victories can help in a relegation fight.
That fact needs to be promoted by the teams, as well as the promoters. European Professional Rugby Clubs (EPRC) must retain these matches as the ‘creme de la creme’. Not a break from domestic rugby.
French Disinterest in Challenge Cup Round Two
When assessing the results and attitude, the carrot of a Champions Cup place for the winner is clearly is not big enough. With the vastly greater financial rewards for Top14 league positions in France, it appears the Challenge Cup will remain an unwanted distraction for most.
Perhaps, only if the competition is given greater prominence with broadcasters, sponsors and the media, then will all EPRC fans see greater competition.
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Gloucester Rugby v Agen – European Rugby Challenge Cup
GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 19: Agen player Hugo Verdu reacts during the European Rugby Challenge Cup match between Gloucester Rugby and Agen at Kingsholm on October 19, 2017 in Gloucester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)