Welcome to the lottery cup sorry I mean the European Rugby Challenge Cup. Here is my preview and predictions on who will make it out of the groups.
For a change this tournament is staying similar to last year with 5 pools where the winners plus three best second places going into the quarter finals. The only change this year is that the knockout stages are later in the season.
The real problem with this competition is that some of the teams see it as a distraction from the real business of surviving or doing well in their domestic leagues. This was particularly evident in some of the away squads chosen by the French teams last season. With the Rugby World Cup delaying the start of the Aviva Premiership and therefore the cancelling of the LV=Cup, there will be English sides that will also see these weekends as a good time to rest players. This is why I called it the lottery cup at the top of this piece and why there will be a larger element of luck in picking than normal. Having said that here are the groups and how I think they will pan out.
Pool 1 includes Enisei-STM from Russia and I’m glad that I don’t have to attempt to pronounce it. Being one of the two sides from outside the top domestic leagues you would expect them to lose all their games and so there is a good chance of one of the better second place teams coming from this group. The main challenge will be travelling to Russia in their winter and how teams cope with that.
Of the other three teams Falcons have had a horrid start to the season losing all their games and their focus was always going to be on Premiership survival. I’m fully expecting them to be resting players which leaves the pool open for the other two sides.
Brive don’t have to worry about relegation but will be more interested in Top 14 success but even with weaker traveling squads they could take second. Which means that Connacht should be looking to top the group. Their primary concern will be making the Pro12 playoffs but will less games than Brive don’t have to worry so much about resting players.
Newport Gwent Dragons
Where as Pool 1 has a couple of domestic high fliers Pool 2 is very much filled with teams looking over their shoulders. Castres and Pau will be much more worried about relegation and I expect them both to be putting B teams on the plane for their away games. Dragons are perennially in the bottom part of the Pro12 table and they are there again this season. Clearly there isn’t relegation to worry about in the Pro12 but I don’t think they have the quality to win away in France.
That leaves the group open for Sale to take and this will also be their best chance of silverware so I wouldn’t be surprised if they were to take it very seriously.
This is the second Pool with a team from outside the top tier which means again this must be favourite to provide a best second place. Calvisano will put up a fight especially at home but I can’t see them winning a game. Cardiff have been poor this season and if they rest players could get upset away in Italy but with their internationals coming back should improve. I don’t think it will be enough to worry either Quins or Montpellier if these side field first string sides. That’s the problem though, how seriously are these tow going to take the tournament? Both will be aiming of domestic success but I still think they will go through but I don’t know in which order.
Amazingly Worcester are the side that’s highest in their league at the moment, I don’t expect that to continue though. Warriors will be seeing this as a great opportunity to rest players and give fringe players match practice. La Rochelle will be more interested in avoiding relegation and so send weak sides on the plane. Zebre are just plain poor which leaves only one. Gloucester are another side that will be more interested in domestic success but in reality this might be a more realistic target. I think they will top the group by default and then might take it seriously depending on how things look later in the season.
Age are stuck at the bottom of the Top 14 table and this will be seen purely as a distraction from survival. Expect the under 16s team sent out rather than any of their first team especially for away games. Irish are in a similar situation but as they have a new coaching setup and players might see this as extra game time to learn systems. I think that they will be too rusty even if they take that approach but it might make for some interesting games.
That leaves Edinburgh and Grenoble. I think that Grenoble will at least initially see this as a distraction but if they are looking safe int he Top 14 and still in with a shout here they might give it some attention later on. Edinburgh should take this group and use this as an opportunity to challenge for silverware.
So that means I’m predicting the following teams to make it into the QFs:
Brive Connacht Rugby Sale Grenoble Harlequins Montpellier Edinburgh Rugby Gloucester Rugby
If I have all of those right, it will be a miracle but it’s fun to have a go.
Please do join in with my prediction league on SuperBru.