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Amlin Challenge Cup
Challenge Cup combatants ready for battle
ESPNscrum Staff
October 7, 2010

The European Challenge Cup rolls back into action on Thursday, when one of the tournament's big boys, Stade Francais, get proceedings underway in Paris.

Michael Cheika's men are in Europe's second tier after a dismal league campaign in 2009-10 and while the former Leinster coach is used to life at the sharp end, his gritty determination could push Stade all the way this season. Their first challenge comes in the form of Crociati Rugby, the result of a merger between Overmach Parma and Noceto Rugby, at the Stade Charlety.

Cheika has named a mixture of youth and experience, with Hugo Southwell, Ollie Phillips, Martin Rodriguez and Brian Liebenberg all starting in the backs. England lock Tom Palmer is joined in the pack by Argentina prop Rodrigo Roncero and Italian flanker Mauro Bergamasco.

Newcastle Falcons are also in action on Thursday as they take on Top 14 strugglers Bourgoin at Kingston Park in Pool 3. Scotland international Ally Hogg captains the Falcons while former Munster fly-half Jeremy Manning shifts to No.10 in place of the rested Jimmy Gopperth. Alan Tait has named exciting halfback prospect Joel Hodgson on the bench and the England Under-18 international could make his debut if called upon.

As already alluded to, Bourgoin have made a poor start to their domestic campaign, losing seven of their opening nine fixtures, and currently sit second from bottom in the Top 14 standings. It is hardly surprising then, that they have made wholesale changes to the side which claimed a badly-needed win over Brive at the weekend, with fly-half Seabstien Laloo, loose-head prop Olivier Milloud and lock Wessel Jooste the only survivors from the side which triumphed at the Stade Pierre Rajon. Mickael Campeggia replaces Mickael Forrest at scrum-half and will skipper the side in the absence of the injured Julien Frier.

There are three games on Friday, the earliest of which pits Agen against Gloucester at the Stade Armandie. The home side are currently dead last in the French top flight but they, unlike Bourgoin, have named a relatively strong side for their first European outing in three seasons. Jean Monribot returns to skipper the side from the back-row, former Cardiff Blue Jamie Robinson will start at outside-centre, while the experienced Valentin Courrent will wear No.10.

As expected, Gloucester head coach Bryan Redpath has also elected to make full use of his squad, after seeing a number of players pick up knocks in their fine win over Bath at the Rec last weekend. Consequently, there are recalls to the starting XV for Alasdair Dickinson, Scott Lawson, Dave Attwood, Luke Narraway, Peter Buxton and Akapusi Qera. In addition, the fit-again Olly Morgan starts at fullback, while centre Henry Trinder and wing Tom Voyce will make their first competitive starts of the season.

The Cherry and Whites are not the only English side in action on Friday night, with Aviva Premiership rivals Sale hosting Centransa El Salvador at Edgeley Park. The Sharks will be without captain James Gaskell, who suffered ankle ligament damage in training last week. However, they are buoyed by the return of lock Chris Jones, who will make his first start since April. Charlie Hodgson will again wear No.10 as he seeks to improve his match fitness, while there is a debut for flanker Chris Brightwell.

Also on Friday night, Brive welcome Petrarca Padova to the Stade Municipal. Brive are currently languishing in 11th in France after a gloriously inconsistent start to the season but their threat is underlined by victories over Perpignan, Toulon and Stade Francais in recent weeks. Petrarca have won just four matches in European competition in the past five seasons so they will travel more in hope than expectancy.

Leeds Carnegie kick off their campaign with a trip to the Arcul de Triumf to take on Bucuresti Oaks and will be intent on claiming a morale-boosting win on the back of five successive Aviva Premiership defeats. Danny Paul misses the game in Romania with a rib injury sustained in Saturday's loss to London Irish so Rhys Oakley takes over at No.8. Oakley will be joined in the back-row by Jacob Rowan. Elsewhere, Christian Lewis Pratt and Warren Fury have been paired together at half-back, Henry Faafili earns a recall on the left wing, while Gareth Hardy, Phil Nilsen and Miguel Alonso will form an all-new front row.

While Leeds may be low on confidence at the moment, Exeter Chiefs head into their first European campaign brimming with confidence after adapting quite impressively to life in the English top flight. The newly-promoted Chiefs are a lowly tenth but have surprised many pundits with their competitiveness and have already registered two home wins, against Gloucester and Newcastle. Consequently, they will be looking forward to Montpellier's arrival at Sandy Park on Saturday afternoon. However, Montpellier have been upsetting the odds themselves this season and are currently third in the Top 14 after six wins from nine games.

Despite the undoubted threat posed by Montpellier, Exeter boss Rob Baxter has opted to make 13 changes to the side which picked up a losing bonus point at Franklin's Gardens at the weekend. Blindside flanker Chad Slade and Phil Dollman, who has been moved from centre to fullback, are the only men to survive the cull. Recent arrivals Junior Poluleuligaga, Ryan Davis and Andrew Higgins are among those who have been given a chance to shine from the start. Montpellier, meanwhile, have already stated that they are viewing the tournament as a chance to blood young players and they have left the likes of Francois Trinh-Duc and Fulgence Ouedraogo at home.

One of the more interesting fixtures of the weekend pits Connacht, the only ever-presents in the Challenge Cup, against tournament newcomers I Cavalieri Estra. The game at the Stadio Lungobisenzio represents Eric Elwood's first European outing as Connacht's new coach and he has admitted that the Westerners' knowledge of their opponents does not extend beyond one video recording of a recent Super 10 game against Lazio.

However, the former Ireland international has been buoyed by the return of his captain John Muldoon, who has recovered from a broken arm sustained on international duty in the summer. There are also first starts of the season for prop Rob Sweeney, scrum-half Cillian Willis and wing Darragh Fanning.

Saturday's other game sees Rugby Rovigo welcome La Rochelle to the Stadio Mario Battaglini with both sides hoping to secure a win which will aid their respective bids to make it out of the pool stages of the competition for the first time.

There is just one game on the first Sunday of the new season and it could be construed as a case of the tournament organisers saving the best until last, with Bayonne taking on Harlequins at the Stade Jean Dauger. Bayonne made a rip-roaring start to this year's Top 14 only to slip down the table after three successive narrow defeats, to Toulouse, Perpignan and Biarritz. However, they remain a formidable proposition, even for a Harlequins side which appears to be finding its feet under director of rugby Conor O'Shea after a patchy start to the new season.

Lewis Stevenson and George Robson return after injury to make their first appearances in a Quins match-day squad for the first time this season. Stevenson will take up a place in the second-row alongside Peter Browne, but Robson has to make do with a seat on the bench. Chris Brooker and John Andress come into the front row, Tom Guest earns a start at blindside flanker, while Tom Casson gets a run alongside Ollie Smith in midfield.

Bayonne have made nine changes to the team beaten at home by Biarritz at the weekend but there are still starts for playmaker Benjamin Boyet and South African Joe Pietersen. The returning Pepitio Elhorga will skipper the side from fullback.

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