Stage set for Challenge Cup kick-off
November 9, 2011
Harlequins took the tournament last year in dramatic fashion © Getty Images
The Amlin Challenge Cup kicks off on Thursday with a host of teams in the tournament vying for a spot back at Europe's top table.
Despite the competition being in the Heineken Cup's shadow the tournament boasts some of Europe's giants in the guise of Perpignan, Toulon, Stade Francais and London. And it was Stade who came undone to Harlequins 19-18 in the final of last year's competition thanks to a late try from Gonzalo Camacho and a precise conversion from Nick Evans.
The new boys to the Aviva Premiership, Worcester Warriors open their campaign against Stade on Thursday at Sixways and Warriors boss Richard Hill has set out his stall from the off naming a strong side to take on the Top 14 giants. Former England fly-half Andy Goode will have to be content with a place on the bench with Marcel Garvey and Tom Arscott filling in on the wings with Miles Benjamin suspended.
Stade dominated their Challenge Cup pool last term winning all six of their matches and scoring 29 tries in the process. But the Top 14 side are struggling in the French league having won just four of their first nine games. However, after a summer of financial uncertainty, they will hope to find some form in the Challenge Cup and feature several of their World Cup stars with Sergio Parisse, Tom Palmer, Felipe Contepomi and Pascel Pape all getting the nod for the clash at Sixways.
The pair are joined in Pool One by Romania's Bucharest Wolves and Crociati Parma of Italy - who face each other on Sunday - and with just one side progressing from the group stages.
Pool Two will be closely contested, with French big-spenders Toulon opening their campaign against Italian side Petrarca on Thursday. The venue for the match had to be changed due to extreme weather conditions in Toulon with Bourgoin's Stade Pierre Rajon hosting the clash instead of the Stade Felix-Mayol. Petrarca fared similar to Parma in last year's tournament, winning just one of their games and face an uphill task against Bernard Laporte's side.
But Laporte has opted to rest the likes of Jonny Wilkinson for the match and is instead giving the opportunity to those who are trying to force their way into first-team contention the chance to take the limelight come Thursday evening. Despite this, they still possess international class with the likes of Alexis Palisson and Kris Chesney in their starting XV.
Newcastle Falcons and Top 14 newcomers Lyon join them in Pool Two and with both sides struggling in their respective divisions, the European tournament may be one distraction too many for the coaches. But the carrot of automatic qualification to the Heineken Cup is an attractive one so Alan Tait and Ricky Januarie-inspired Lyon may fancy their chances when the pair meet at Kingston Park on Saturday.
Pool Three sees Rovigo facing Bayonne on Saturday with Bordeaux hosting Wasps later on in the day. Bayonne have spent big over the summer recruiting Mike Phillips, Joe Rokocoko and Neemia Tialata though whether they favour Top 14 glory over the Challenge Cup remains to be seen. Bordeaux are finding their feet in France's top division after their promotion last term and face a Wasps side going through transition. However, with Dai Young at the helm they possess a man who knows what it takes to win the competition having taken the trophy in 2009-10 with the Cardiff Blues.
Pool Four is also fairly open with last season's Heineken Cup semi-finalists Perpignan opening their campaign with a home tie against the Premiership's Exeter Chiefs. Exeter's first-round defeat to eventual Top 14 finalists Montpellier proved to be their downfall as they failed to progress from their group last season and although they started the 2011-12 Premiership season well, they have struggled with form of late. Perpignan are mid-table in the Top 14 and have bolstered their ranks with the signing of James Hook so will look to impress in front of their home crowd.
The Pool's other opening clash sees Cavalieri Prato hosting the Newport Gwent-Dragons on Saturday. The Italian side won just one of their six games last term - against RaboDirect PRO12 side Connacht - and face a Dragons side buoyed by the impressive performance by Wales during the 2011 World Cup.
Tournament new-comers Spanish side La Vila front up against Agen and Brive host Sale Sharks on Saturday in Pool Five. Sale failed to progress from their Pool last term ironically falling to Brive home and away though with Steve Diamond at the helm, they possess a rugged edge which has been absent from the side since they took the Premiership title in 2006. Brive went onto reach the quarter-finals of last year's tournament but came undone against Munster losing 42-37 in a thriller in the Stade Amedee-Domenech.
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