The Challenge Cup looks extremely tasty this season with the Lions and Cheetahs joining some solid European sides including the Bristol Bears, Toulon, Stade Francais, Connacht and the the Glasgow Warriors in Europe’s second tier.
Stade Français (FRA)
The Challenge Cup has a bit of a weird look to it this year with Pool A featuring 10 teams while there are only eight in Pool B. The deficit in numbers comes due to the fact that the Worcester Warriors and Wasps have been banned from all rugby due to breaching of financial regulations and falling foul with the RFU.
The tournament will feature six sides from the Top 14, four from the Gallagher Premiership and eight from the United Rugby Championship, while the Free State Cheetahs are the invitational side.
The points scoring system is the same as last season with sides awarded four points for a win, two for a draw, a try-scoring bonus point for scoring four or more tries in a game and a losing bonus point for losing by seven or less points.
Tier 1 clubs and Tier 4 clubs which are in the same pool, but that aren’t in the same league, play one another home and away.
The Tier 2 clubs and the Tier 3 clubs that are in the same pool, but which are not in the same league, play one another home and away.
The sides that finish in the top 6 in each pool will advance to the Round of 16 where they will be joined from four teams from the Champions Cup, who finish ninth and tenth in their respective pools.
The three English sides have all been pooled together in Pool 1. While I can’t really see the Newcastle Falcons or Bath doing much in this comp – Bath are in a rebuilding phase, while Newcastle have endured an atrocious start to the Premiership – Bristol may be the great hope for English success.
The Bears are one of the great entertainers in the Gallagher Premiership and while they currently languish at the foot of the Premiership table, they do have a side stacked with attacking talent. Pat Lam’s men could well be a dark horse to lift the cup.
There may only be one Irish side in it, but Connacht have a massive chance of going all the way. They have a very talented side that features Irish internationals Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen.
They have somewhat struggled in the URC thus far only winning four of their nine games but a number of those games either came on the road or were against their fellow Irish heavyweights.
Zebre and Treviso are the two Italian sides in this one and they both have made solid improvements in recent years, especially the latter who enjoyed a very positive start to their URC campaign and currently sit 12th on the table with four wins from 12 starts. While this isn’t the most eye-catching of records, it’s pretty solid if you consider where they were during the PRO Rugby era.
Zerbre will likely to bomb out in the Pool phase but I can see Treviso pushing deeper than that. They have a very handy squad with a number of talented overseas and Italian players at their disposal.
With Edinburgh mixing it up with the big boys in the Champions Cup, Glasgow will be Scotland’s lone representative in Europe’s second-tier competition.
The Warriors have thrilled and disappointed in equal measure this season. Big URC wins against the Italian sides and the Bulls have been interspersed amongst heavy defeats against the Sharks, Ospreys and Leinster.
They’ll face off against a resurgent Bath outfit and French basement boys, Perpignan. They might sneak into the Round of 16 but I reckon that’s as far as they’ll go.
The Welsh definitely did not want to have three sides in the second tier and only one in the Champions Cup. This is their lot, however, and they will certainly be looking to make the most of it.
The Cardiff Blues are probably Wales’ best chance of lifting silverware here. Both the Scarlets and Dragons have been whipping boys in the URC while the Blues have held their own and currently sit seventh on the URC standings, with their 35-0 demolition of the Sharks in Durban a high water mark for the season.
Additionally, they boast the best squad of the three with Josh Adams, Seb Davies and Liam Williams all on the club’s books.
Onto the South Africans now and there’s a Cats reunion here with the Golden Lions and Free State Cheetahs the two sides flying the South African flag.
The Lions are having a great time of it in the URC and currently lie fifth on the table with five wins from their eight fixtures. They have a very exciting squad full of promising young talent including mercurial pivot Jordan Hendrikse.
I reckon the Lions can go pretty deep in the Challenge Cup. They might not find much joy against Stade in the Pool phase but should blow cruise past Dragons home and away. A positive result against Stade at Ellis Park is a must.
The Cheetahs are a somewhat unknown proposition with most rugby fans only catching glimpses of them in the Currie Cup which was staged earlier this year. They have some aging but serious talent on their books including Frans Steyn, Robert Eberhson and Ruan Pienaar.
I’ll be putting my money on two teams here with Stade Francais my real fancy to take top honours and the Golden Lions my outsider for the trophy. Stade have really impressed in the Top 14 thus far and they look like the real deal this term. The Lions are also getting better and better with each passing match against European opposition and could be the competition’s surprise package.