Sale headline pivotal clashes
December 9, 2010
Sale's Ben Cohen will face his former club, Brive, this weekend © Getty Images
The Amlin Challenge Cup returns to action this weekend as the tournament enters a pivotal stage in the race for quarter-final berths.
Sale Sharks are tied at the top of Pool 2 with Top 14 strugglers Brive on 10 points, with the sides set for a fiercely-contested double-header in the coming weeks. The Sharks can take a big step towards the knockout rounds with victory at the Stade Amedee Domenech on Saturday, while the home side need a fillip after slipping into the Top 14 drop zone amid reports of financial strife and continued backroom wrangling.
The Sharks' cause has been significantly aided by the return of internationals Andrew Sheridan, Mark Cueto, Wame Lewaravu and Paul Williams. In a further boost for head coach Mike Brewer, No.9 Dwayne Peel has recovered from a minor groin problem and he will start in the half-backs alongside Nick Macleod, who will serve as skipper this weekend.
Also in Pool 2, Petrarca Padova take on Cetransa El Salvador at the Stadio Plebiscito on Saturday.
Harlequins are in a battle at the summit of Pool 1 and face a tough back-to-back scrap against Eric Elwood's Connacht, beginning at the Stoop on Sunday.
Quins have to make do without England scrum-half Danny Care, who was cited for stamping during last weekend's Aviva Premiership clash with Saracens. As a result, Karl Dickson will wear the No.9 jersey. Elsewhere, recent arrival Maurie Fa'asavalu is not yet eligibile for European competition, while the loss of Ollie Smith to injury means Tom Casson will partner George Lowe in midfield. On the plus side, Gonzalo Camacho starts for the first time since returning from international duty with Italy. In the pack, Ollie Kohn comes in for George Robson, who has been struggling with injury of late, while Nick Easter returns at No.8.
Connacht, meanwhile, are buoyed by the return of the fit-again Sean Cronin, who slots back into the side at hooker. However, Eoin Griffin has been sidelined through injury and head coach Eric Elwood has decided to plug the gap in midfield with Ian Keatley, whose preferred position is fly-half. New signing Rodney Ah You has been named amongst the replacements.
Quins and Connacht are separated by a single point at the top but both will be looking over their shoulders at Bayonne, who are level with the Irish side and a point ahead of this weekend's opponents, Cavalieri Prato.
In an all-English tie, Exeter welcome Newcastle to Sandy Park in Pool 3, with the Chiefs having won the corresponding Premiership fixture 22-17 back in September.
Given Exeter's focus this season is solely on Premiership survival, head coach Rob Baxter has, unsurprisingly, made wholesale changes for the game. Indeed, back-line trio Nic Sestaret, Mark Foster and Ryan Davis are the only survivors from the side which started in last weekend's defeat by Wasps. Among those recalled is Junior Poluleuligaga and he will skipper the side from scrum-half.
The Falcons have also wrung the changes. However, Micky Young continues at No.9 and he will be joined in the half-backs by Jeremy Manning, who has been switched from fullback to facilitate the inclusion of Tom Catterick. Captain James Hudson retains his place in the second row, while Micky Ward and Kieran Brookes have also held on to their berths in the front row.
Montpellier currently lead the way after seeing off both of the English combatants in the opening round, and Fabien Galthie's side are in action on Thursday against Top 14 also-rans Bourgoin at the Stade Yves du Manoir.
Gloucester face a vital away trip to Pool 5 leaders La Rochelle on Saturday, having already tasted defeat on French soil once this season, at Agen.
With the stakes so high, Cherry and Whites boss Bryan Redpath has named a strong line-up for the trip to the Stade Marcel Deflandre. Indeed, Redpath has stuck with the same back-line he named for last weekend's scheduled clash with Sale Sharks, which was subsequently called off. There are two changes to the pack, though, with Will James joining Dave Attwood in the second row and Peter Buxton getting the nod at blindside flanker.
Meanwhile, Gloucester's conquerors in round one, Agen, are on the road to Rovigo this weekend.
Elsewhere, Stade Francais are five points clear at the top of Pool 4 and will be counting on extending their lead against Bucuresti at the Arcul de Triumf in Bucharest.
Leeds are currently in second and need a boost heading into Christmas - they take on Crociati home and away in the coming weeks.
Leeds welcome back flanker Hendre Fourie and hooker Steve Thomspon, who will be making their first starts since returning from England duty. Lachlan MacKay has been given the nod at fly-half and that sees Ceiron Thomas switch to fullback. MacKay will be partnered in the half-backs by Warren Fury, while Michael Stephenson has been handed a start on the wing.
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