Race for Challenge Cup title hots up
April 10, 2009
Who will get their hands on the European Challenge Cup silverware this season? © Getty Images
Saracens 32 - 13 Newcastle Falcons Northampton Saints 42 - 13 Connacht Worcester Warriors 29 - 18 Brive London Irish 30 - 32 Bourgoin-Jallieu
The European Challenge Cup quarter-finals kicked off on Thursday night with top seeds London Irish crashing out at the hands of Bourgoin at the Madejski Stadium.
The action continues with Worcester playing host to Brive at Sixways on Saturday afternoon. Warriors boss Mike Ruddock hopes his side's successful scrap for Guinness Premiership survival can impact on their European Challenge Cup campaign.
"We got to the (Challenge Cup) final last year, and now we've got an opportunity against a very good Brive side to make it through to the semi-finals," said Ruddock. "The victory against Saracens will allow us to play with a little less pressure and be able to enjoy that.
"It's a great opportunity for us, and now there is a little bit of pressure off, we can go and concentrate on that fully and not have to worry too much about the league games coming up."
New Zealand ace Rico Gear returns to the Warriors' starting line-up after recovering from a hamstring injury and will play at fullback with on-loan ace Willie Walker cup tied. Wing Marcel Garvey is set to make his first appearance in Europe this season and Alex Grove, who impressed against Saracens last weekend, retains his place in the centre alongside Dale Rasmussen. Fly-half Joe Carlisle returns to the replacements bench and is joined by Jonny Arr, who this week signed a new one-year deal with Warriors.
Brive though will prove tough nuts to crack, given their impressive French Championship form and a determination to secure Heineken Cup qualification next term.
"Our objectives for the season were a top-six (championship) finish and automatic qualification for next season's Heineken Cup, or qualifying as winners of the Challenge Cup," said Brive's Wales international number eight Alix Popham. "At the moment, both avenues are open to us."
Northampton take on Connacht at Franklin's Gardens later the same day where their impressive home form will see them enter the clash as favourites. But Saints director of rugby Jim Mallinder has warned against any complacency. "We are treating Connacht with the same respect we have given every other opposition club this season. They have earned their right to be in the quarter final having come through a tough group and I am expecting a difficult afternoon.
"Connacht have a tough, physical set of forwards who know how to produce good ball, and a collection of backs who know how to create opportunities. They have also beaten some of Europe's biggest teams this season and if we take our focus off the task in hand then there is always the potential for us to be beaten."
Connacht have made one change to their side with Frank Murphy returning to the side at scrum-half in what is otherwise an unchanged line up from that which beat the Dragons at the Sportsground last Friday in the Magners League.
The semi-final line-up will be completed when Saracens go head-to-head with Newcastle at Vicarage Road on Sunday. Sarries Coach Richard Graham welcomes back the fit-again Alex Goode, Brad Barritt, Matt Cairns, Neil de Kock and Noah Cato to his matchday squad for the cup clash. There are also recalls for Adam Powell, Glen Jackson, Ben Skirving and Kris Chesney to the first team following last weekend's clash at Worcester Warriors.
However, the squad has been dealt a triple injury blow this week with the news that Wikus van Heerden, Kameli Ratuvou (both shoulder) and Edd Thrower (leg) have all been ruled out for the rest of the campaign.
"The stakes are very high for both sides as we look for silverware and Heineken Cup qualification next season, so it should make for an exciting game," said Graham
"We played Newcastle earlier in the season at Vicarage Road and performed well to win the game but this is a different team to that which visited us in September. In Tom May and Mickey Youngs they have a half back pairing that has been giving them a lot of direction and in guys like Carl Hayman and Jamie Noon, they have a lot of experience within the team."
The Falcons welcome back winger Danny Williams to their line-up after an ankle injury and he joins a Falcons side showing just two other changes from the one which travelled to London Wasps last weekend, both coming in the front row as David Wilson and Matt Thompson replace Micky Ward and Rob Vickers respectively.
Director of rugby Steve Bates said going in to the match, "We've been telling the players this week what cup rugby is all about, which is really attacking the game with a winner-takes-all mentality in a way perhaps that you would not always do in the league.
"The players want to win a trophy on the back of what they have been doing over the last three months, well all season really, because even when we were losing games we were still building our game towards what we have seen after the new year.
"It's a great opportunity for us as a team to get some silverware in our own right. That will be a real achievement and we will have to beat some good sides along the way, but for me the Heineken Cup side of things is of secondary importance to the main goal, which is for this team to win a trophy together."
European Challenge Cup Quarter-Finals:
European Challenge Cup Semi-Finals:
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