The final weekend of European pool matches has been completed, and the quarter final lineup is now known. In Challenge Cup Round Six it is the results of the qualifying French teams that catch the eye.
In a tournament that is often ignored by Pro14 sides, the European Professional Rugby Clubs’ tournament victory last season; by Stade Français, may not be a ‘one off’.
Champions scrape through to Quarters
In a similar manner to last season, Stade Français have stumbled into the quarter finals as eighth seeds. This did not seem likely after their Round One humiliating defeat to Russian side Krasny Yar. Not indeed did a crushing home defeat to struggling London Irish in Round Two suggest they were on course to defend their title. But a 17-10 victory over previously unbeaten pool winners Edinburgh saw them clinch a trip to fellow French side Pau.
Perhaps that final victory last May inspired Stade to continue their interest in the competition. Now that the reward of Champions Cup rugby is guaranteed this season (Stade lost in the play off final last season) perhaps the Parisians fancy it after all.
This is validation for continued calls for organisers to provide better incentives for participating teams. Driving up standards in the Challenge Cup will make it a more marketable competition, and eventually see the Champions Cup quality improve too.
‘Six from Six’ for Pau
It was certainly a match worthy of the Champions Cup at Kingsholm, where Pau claimed number one seeding. They beat Gloucester 34-24 and ended the Cherry and Whites’ unbeaten home record. It was winner takes all in this clash and as a result both teams fielded strong lineups. Pau could afford to lose narrowly yet still played big names like Colin Slade, Steffon Armitage and Conrad Smith (see main photo).
The match intensity would not have been out of place in the Champions Cup, neither would some of the skills on show. Armitage claimed a number of turnover penalties at the breakdown in the first half that stopped dangerous Gloucester attacks. After being thrown a lifeline by Richard Hibbard’s wayward lineout on the stroke of half time, Pau scored a succession of impressive tries to how their hosts away.
Whilst Gloucester were certainly off the pace in terms of accuracy and game control, Pau were fully deserving of a bonus point win. They will host Stade Français in the quarter finals and will surely have their eyes on a first European final since 2005. You wouldn’t go far wrong betting on them to win the trophy in Bilbao either.
Brive grab second successive Quarter Final
The third French qualifier, from Pool Five, is Brive. Following 2014/15, which saw no Top 14 clubs in the last eight, France has now provided three quarter finalists in the last two seasons. Not even a waterlogged pitch, delayed kick off and change of venue could stop brive defeating Worcester Warriors 33-7. Again this was a winner takes all Anglo-French clash and like Pau and Stade, Brive rose to the occasion.
The reward for the men from Corrèze is a trip to second seeds Newcastle Falcons. However given their precarious position just above the Top14 relegation zone, they may not be so motivated come April. Also, Newcastle will fancy their chances of winning the tournament to build on their Premiership top six challenge.
Challenge Cup Round Six Result in Quarterfinal Placings
— Challenge Cup (@ERChallengeCup) January 20, 2018
Elsewhere there was progress for Welsh rugby as well with Cardiff Blues topping Pool Two, and Edinburgh continue their good record in this tournament.
The French Revival continues in European Challenge Cup, but with that it might be as much in teams peaking, rather than of a higher standard in 2017/18. The Top 14 is still a strange mix, but teams certainly know how to focus on the bigger stage of Europe.
All in all, five nations are represented in the quarter finals. This diversity can only make for a better tournament.
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