The Challenge Cup returns to the rugby menu this weekend alongside its big sister competition. Here are a few things that you may have missed...
Welcome domestic break for key clash
You don’t have to go far back into the annals of European competition to find Cardiff Blues and London Irish mixing it with some big names at the business end of the tournament.
The Exiles were edged out in a 2008 semi-final against Toulouse, while the Blues fell to a heartbreaking penalty shoot-out defeat to Leicester Tigers at the same stage a year later. The European stocks of both have failed to reach such heady heights since.
The two clubs have endured uninspiring campaigns in 2014, and are at risk of spending the coming months with neck ache as they stare up the table as the high-flying teams pull further away.
For a fortnight, however, these domestic woes can be set aside, as they collide for sole control of Pool 1. Irish’s 70-19 mauling of Rovigo in the first round showed their calibre in this tournament, and it remains the biggest scoreline in either European competition to this stage. But Cardiff Blues have shown unrelenting promise of their own, recording bonus point wins in their opening two matches to sit level with this weekend’s opponents.
There can be criticism of the Challenge Cup throwing up dud matches and dead rubbers. This one is anything but – the next two weeks will prove pivotal to quarter-final qualification.
Chiefs proving Premiership form is no fluke
Perhaps the biggest Aviva Premiership story this season has been the seemingly irrepressible rise of Exeter Chiefs. An immaculate kicking display from Gareth Steenson did for Saracens last weekend, cementing the Chiefs’ position just three points shy of table-toppers Northampton Saints after nine games.
And while cynics believe the momentum is due a stutter – a run of three away games in four Premiership matches will prove a tough run – their form in the Challenge Cup serves as a reminder that the eyebrow-raising performance so far this season is no flash in the pan.
Their win in La Rochelle was their first success in six attempts on French soil, and gives them a great chance of qualification into the latter stages. Not only was Steenson, new contract in tow, again influential with the boot, but the composure shown in acquiring a late try bonus point will prove priceless if they are to continue pulling up trees domestically and in Europe.
Entertainment still on offer
Such is the streamlined new format of both European competitions that Champions Cup upsets on the level of Connacht‘s heroic toppling of Toulouse in 2013 are not so readily available. Instead, arguably the biggest shock in this season’s European rugby came in the second round of Challenge Cup action, when Newport Gwent Dragons ran out bonus point winners over Stade Francais in Paris.
The scale of the Dragons’ achievement is impressive enough when you acknowledge the historically robust challenge that winning on French soil poses. But bearing in mind that Stade are yet to be beaten at home in the Top 14, and currently sit just two points off the peerless Toulon at the top of the ladder, the victory borders on the truly momentous.
Perhaps what is more stunning still is that that same Newport side, albeit with a largely changed front five, were subsequently beaten by Newcastle Falcons at Rodney Parade the following weekend, despite crossing the whitewash three times in the opening half.
It was a pair of results that perfectly advertised the quality this tournament has to offer. The Falcons top the pool heading into a double header with the Parisiennes and there is a genuine chance that all three sides will be in touch come Rounds 5 and 6. It is the type of entertainment that the Challenge Cup will thrive on.
Right team, right time
In this month’s Rugby World, the 1872 Cup clash between Edinburgh and Glasgow was picked out as a “must not miss” clash for the Christmas period. But ahead of the traditional Scottish tussle, the Warriors are in the thick of a battle for domestic supremacy, while their nearby neighbours are facing a scrap of their own to avoid slipping into a Guinness Pro12 mini-league of five clubs at the bottom of the table.
To add to the ever-widening gap between the Celtic rivals, Glasgow’s warm up begins this weekend with the first leg of a double header against European heavyweights Toulouse. Edinburgh, on the other hand, welcome English whipping boys London Welsh to the BT Murrayfield Stadium.
The contrast could not be more stark, but Alan Solomons‘ side may find some respite in the back-to-back Challenge Cup matches ahead of them.
The newly-promoted Exiles have conceded 50 or more points on five occasions this season, and their porous defence will certainly need to shore up if they are to stoke the attacking intent that Tom Heathcote, Andries Strauss and Matt Scott will be looking to bring.
It may seem unfair to suggest that Welsh provide a blank canvas on which Edinburgh can unleash their creativity, but after an unbeaten start in the competition they will anticipate this as a chance to secure a quarter-final berth and garner some much needed confidence a few weeks ahead of the 1872 Cup grudge match.
Momentum moment for Gloucester
After a 21-9 success at London Irish last weekend, Gloucester director of rugby David Humphreys spoke of the “momentum” the result would offer his side going forward.
Consistency has been the Cherry and Whites’ Achilles heel for some time, and it has been especially prevalent this campaign – they have only managed to secure consecutive wins on one occasion outside of the Challenge Cup.
Humphreys’ comments suggest that the upcoming back-to-back clashes with Zebre, starting at Kingsholm on Sunday, could provide a long overdue shot in the arm for their domestic intentions.
They may also be eyeing a shot at the Challenge Cup trophy, with the quality of their squad seeming to outweigh that of the counterparts they may face down the line. Humphreys’ policy in sticking with a strong first choice side in Europe shows the inherent desire to gel a largely new look team, but also hints at a real intention in this tournament.