After a bruising Autumn International series that tested most squad depths, two rounds of European action may be a welcome distraction for many coaches. Key men can be rested and returning players can be eased back in. However the next fortnight requires a difficult decision to be made: to rest or not to rest?
James Barker looks forward to Challenge Cup Round Three for Last Word on Rugby.
Chance to Build Momentum
For some sides, they’ll want to ensure they keep up momentum built in their league campaigns. The prime example is resurgent Gloucester, who have won five Premiership games in a row and currently sit second. They have a potentially awkward double header against improved Zebre, starting away in Parma. They sit second in Pool Three so have no room for complacency. The other match in this group is an all-French affair that sees Agen host Pau on Friday evening.
Challenge Cup round three also offers struggling sides the chance to build momentum for when they return to league action. The example of Bristol Rugby last season provides the blueprint. During this double header period in 2016/17 they beat Pau home and away which proved the catalyst for two consecutive league wins over Christmas. This put them back in survival contention at the time and other circumstances could have seen them still in the Premiership.
This season it is Worcester Warriors and London Irish who will hope to pull the same trick. Due the involvement of Russian side Krasny Yar the Exiles do not have a double header but ties against Edinburgh and Stade Français. These will both be tough asks but Irish have already convincingly beaten Stade in this competition. Worcester will relish their matches against lowly Oyonnax as a chance to build on their recent impressive victories in the Aviva Premiership.
French Sides With Little Motivation
As covered by Last Word on Rugby, Round One and Round Two saw disinterested French sides crash to some embarrassing defeats. Consequently, they have even less motivation to field strong sides with little chance of progressing.
In particular the Toulouse vs Lyon double header may be a case of who is slightly less disinterested. Lyon led the Top 14 earlier in the season but have slipped to third, 6 points behind leaders La Rochelle. They are likely to want to focus on their title challenge. Likewise Toulouse will have their eye on the league but will be smarting from a 41-31 home defeat to Castres last week. They can at least pride themselves on attempting to play an attacking game, as the below stat shows.
— Challenge Cup (@ERChallengeCup) December 5, 2017
Meanwhile, Oyonnax, Agen and Brive are heavily involved in the French relegation battle and aren’t likely to risk their key players. The latter two have notched a victory in the Challenge Cup but an extended run in the competition is not in their interests; such are the financial rewards for being in the Top 14. On the other hand, they may want to consider the ‘Bristol effect’ explored earlier.
Chance to Win a Trophy
It may seem obvious but this a golden opportunity to win a trophy for those unlikely to take league glory. Current pool leaders such as Edinburgh, Cardiff Blues and Newcastle Falcons would make a big statement were they to claim the Challenge Cup title in Bilbao next May. Edinburgh Head Coach Richard Cockerill is used to winning trophies, and this title would be a first step to restoring his bruised reputation. It would also return the capital side to the Champions Cup for the first time since 2012/13.
Newcastle have made real progress in the past season or two and a trophy in the cabinet would be the physical representation of that. They face the Dragons home and away, another side who would like to bring home some concrete evidence of improvement.
Finally Cardiff Blues have failed to hit the European heights of the late 2000’s under Dai Young, but would love to add to the Challenge Cup they won in 2010. They face Sale Sharks who may already be looking to this competition to provide a route to the Champions Cup.
Full Round Three Fixtures
Pau vs Agen
Dragons vs Newcastle Falcons
Edinburgh Rugby vs Krasny Yar
Oyonnax vs Worcester Warriors
Bordeaux-Begles vs Enisei-STM
Gloucester Rugby vs Zebre
London Irish vs Stade Français
Connacht Rugby vs Brive
Lyon vs Toulouse
Cardiff Blues vs Sale Sharks
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