European Challenge Cup
Challenge Cup given added glitz
April 9, 2010
Jonny Wilkinson will be in action for Toulon © Getty Images
Newcastle Falcons 22 - 55 Cardiff Blues London Wasps 42 - 26 Gloucester Rugby Toulon 38 - 12 Scarlets Connacht 23 - 20 Bourgoin-Jallieu
The European Challenge Cup will break new ground this weekend as for the first time three runners-up from the Heineken Cup group stage drop into the quarter-finals. Gloucester, Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets all extended their European seasons after mixed displays in Europe's top competition and they will add an extra spark to a last-eight featuring plenty of big names.
The knock-out stages kick off in Galway on Saturday afternoon as Michael Bradley's Connacht look to keep their winning run alive against last season's beaten finalists Bourgoin. The Irish side have nothing to fear in facing French opposition after beating Montpellier home and away during the pool stages, doing the same to Worcester, but Bourgoin have bags of heart and will do all they can to defy the French stereotype of being bad travellers.
John Muldoon leads Connacht and starts at blindside, with Ian Keatley and Frank Murphy starting at halfback. Ireland international hooker Sean Cronin starts alongside Brett Wilkinson and Jamie Hagan in the front-row.
On Saturday night there will be a battle of two Lions fly-halves as Stephen Jones of the Scarlets takes on long-time rival Jonny Wilkinson and Toulon at the Stade Felix Mayol. Toulon are a fearsome proposition at home and have been flying high in the Top 14 and while the odds are stacked against the boys from Llanelli they have been producing performances that their results do not reflect. Having beaten London Irish and Brive home and away in the Heineken Cup their European form has far outweighed their domestic performance, but they remain up against it.
Jones is partnered at halfback by the youthful Tavis Knoyle while Sean Lamont starts against his brother's club, although fellow Scotland international Rory is ruled out of the game by injury. Hooker Matthew Rees has failed to recover from a neck injury so misses out, with Ken Owens taking the No.2 jersey.
Wilkinson partners skipper Matt Henjak at halfback for Toulon, who also hand a start to former Newcastle utility Tom May in the centre, alongside Sonny Bill Williams.
On Sunday the action kicks-off with an all-English affair at Adams Park where Wasps host Gloucester. The Cherry and Whites turned their fortunes around in the latter stages of the Heineken pools and with their place in next season's tournament not secure due to their Premiership standing, the Challenge Cup could represent a big opportunity for Bryan Redpath's men.
Danny Cipriani returns in place of Dave Walder in the Wasps No.10 jersey and there is one further change in the backline, where Ben Jacobs replaces Mark van Gisbergen at fullback. In the pack, Tom Rees drops to the bench and is relieved by Serge Betsen at openside. Simon Shaw returns from a shoulder injury among the replacements.
After a match-winning display against Saracens Freddie Burns is given another chance to impress in the Gloucester fullback slot, with Mike Tindall returning to captain the side after an injury layoff.
The final last eight tie comes at Kingston Park, where Newcastle Falcons host Cardiff Blues. Both sides have endured mixed seasons although the Blues have shown glimmers of form in recent victories over Ulster. The home side have been boosted by Micky Young's return from a back injury and the pacy scrum-half starts alongside Jimmy Gopperth. Alex Tait returns at fullback following an ankle problem while Brent Wilson bolsters their back-row.
Centre Casey Laulala was a fitness doubt for the Blues but he has been passed fit to take his place alongside Jamie Roberts in midfield. Andy Powell has been ruled out with calf and hamstring problems, with Maama Molitika joining Martyn Williams and Xavier Rush in the back-row. The return to fitness of Deiniol Jones also means that there is no place in the second-row alongside Bradley Davies for club captan Paul Tito. Gethin Jenkins leads the Blues in his absence and will go head-to-head with Falcons skipper Carl Hayman.
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