Europe’s finest will battle it out this weekend as the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup explode into action. Like many fans of the game in the northern hemisphere, I am a huge, huge fan of these competitions, and given the quality of rugby I have witnessed in the Pro12 and Aviva Premiership so far this season (I haven’t caught any of the French Top 14 yet, sadly) I am confident that this year’s tournaments will be among the best yet.
The try-scoring record was broken for a single weekend in the Pro12 last week, with a total of 45 tries across all six games. Brilliant! It just goes to show that the emphasis has been on attack in the Pro12 so far this season, which can only be a good thing. It’s entertaining, it gets supporters through the turnstiles and increases viewing figures, and (hopefully) will set the Pro12 sides in good stead for their first two European games in the next nine days.
With three of the four Welsh regions failing to reach the Champions Cup this term, I feel there is a very real opportunity for a Welsh side to claim European silverware in the form of the Challenge Cup – Europe’s second-tier elite club competition.
Dragons play host to French outfit Brive on Friday night, and I’m backing the Men of Gwent to emerge victorious. They’ve had a decent run in this competition of late, reaching the semi-finals in the last two seasons. A much improved performance in defeat to the Scarlets last week suggests the Dragons are on the cusp of returning to winning ways, and I feel if they can cut down on individual errors and maintain the same intensity as last week, they could win comfortably at Rodney Parade.
Having swept the Blues aside last week, The Ospreys will be looking to make a winning start to their Challenge Cup campaign at home to Newcastle Falcons. Dan Biggar returns to the starting line-up for the hosts, who could be runaway winners at the Liberty stadium given the Falcon’s poor form away from home.
Indeed, Aviva Premiership strugglers Bristol gave Newcastle a scare last weekend, and they will be looking to register their first competitive win of the season when they welcome Cardiff Blues to Ashton Gate. With Blues head coach Danny Wilson and backs coach Matt Sherratt both having joined Wales’ Capital region from Bristol in the last two years, there will be plenty of spice to this fixture. Needless to say, Blues are hoping to regroup after last week’s disappointing performance in Swansea against Ospreys, and will be aiming to put a huge shift in. This will be a tough one, with Bristol themselves showing signs of improvement, but I believe the Blues will take the spoils.
Scarlets are the only Welsh team in this season’s Champions Cup, and they find themselves in the toughest pool I’ve seen in a very long time, alongside defending champions Saracens, three-time winners Toulon and Sale Sharks. They open their account on Saturday, at home to Sale. It goes without saying, this is a must-win game, with Saracen’s up next followed by back-to-back games against Toulon in December. Scarlets’ first choice team has, on paper at least, enough stardust and firepower to beat any of these teams at home, but they just don’t seem to be clicking as a team yet. I thought their Pro12 opener against Munster was just a rusty performance, but even six games in I feel like I haven’t seen a truly cohesive display from the West-Walians. There are some who maintain Rhys Patchell’s best position is full-back, and I feel he hasn’t got the Scarlets back line really firing yet this term. Patchell is an awesome player, supremely talented, and I look forward to him finding some real form at fly-half. Then I think we’ll see what this Scarlets side is really capable of. I’m backing them to edge past Sale on Saturday.