The Challenge Cup draw is usually a secondary affair with all eyes on the Champions Cup. This year has been different with a whole stack of big-name clubs falling into the tier competition, thus making it a very satisfying product to watch unfold. Robert Rees previews the 2019/20 competition.
Castres, Worcester Warriors, Dragons, Enisei-STM
A group that may favour Castres and Worcester, but one that Dragons fans will not be disappointed with, in terms of qualification.
Castres prove a mammoth task playing at home but they themselves struggle to translate that form on the road. Worcester are a similar outfit but with their attacking flair they can cause most teams issues. If they can cut down on the sloppy performances, they can top this group.
The Dragons must turn Rodney Parade into a fortress if they are to stand any chance, but under Dean Ryan and Ceri Jones’ leadership it’s something they can do. It then all falls down to who can handle the air miles to Russia which poses its own logistical issues.
Scarlets, Toulon, London Irish, Bayonne
Bayonne may well be keeping their focus on remaining in the Top14 but with three other top-quality sides in the group you can see a lot of hard games coming from pool two.
The Scarlets may well be favourites with the others choosing to fight domestically, particularly Irish trying to keep their place in England’s top flight.
Toulon aren’t quite what they were several years ago but still prove extremely difficult to beat at home. A few wins on the road would probably be enough to see them through.
London Irish have made a lot of quality signings this summer but whether they gel enough to qualify will be another question.
Wasps, Edinburgh, Bordeaux Begles, Agen
Another immensely strong pool for the second-tier competition. Some very challenging places to go with the likes of Murrayfield and the Ricoh Arena causing issues for their travelling opponents.
Bordeaux may well take one eye off the competition to focus on Top14 matters but with new signings such as Santiago Cordero headlining their show, they have plenty of firepower to do damage.
Agen are more likely to be whipping boys than cause issues for the other three but taking points away from home will be key to topping this group. Expect Edinburgh or Wasps to battle it out.
Stade Francais, Bristol Bears, Zebre, Brive
Expected to be a two-horse race between Stade and Bristol, pool four may well be decided on a slip up against Zebre. The Italians may not be the strongest side in the competition but like their national counterparts Benetton, they have had a good few years in the Pro14.
Brive will struggle to deal with the talent and flair on show between Bristol and Stade Francais who will both be difficult to beat at home. It’s most likely that it’ll become a straight shootout between them to who tops the pool and then if the other can garner up enough points to reach the final eight.
Cardiff Blues, Leicester Tigers, Pau, Calvisano
Cardiff may well be the favourites to top this group after a solid showing in last year’s Champions Cup and Pro14. The Arms Park is never an easy place to go on European nights and with the recent decline of Leicester it opens up for them.
Pau have played them most recently in a semi-final of this competition, the very same year the Blues went on to win it. The French outfit are very forward oriented but are likely to keep one eye on the Top14.
Leicester are in the middle of a massive rebuild following their worst ever season and will more than likely be content with a solid showing in both league and cup.
Calvisano, the reigning Italian Top12 champions are never likely to cause many issues for their fellow competitors but will definitely want to put a message out to EPCR that their spot in the competition was well worth it.
Early predictions following Challenge Cup draw
Stade Francais (27 points), Castres (24), Cardiff (24), Wasps (23), Leicester (23), Edinburgh (23), Scarlets (20), London Irish (20).
See how Challenge Cup rugby affected last season’s attendances at your club.
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