WORCESTER, ENGLAND – The quarterfinals of the Amlin Challenge Cup are set, and the Aviva Premiership looks to dominate the last stages of the competition with six out of the eight quarterfinalists. The three sides dropping down from the Heineken Cup hail from England, as Northampton Saints, Harlequins, and Gloucester will look to put a European gloss on their season, while the five pool winners from the group stages are London Wasps, Bath Rugby, Stade Francais, Brive, and Sale Sharks. Two of the four quarterfinal matches will be all Premiership matchups, as Sale will line up against Northampton at home in April, while London Wasps will welcome Gloucester to Adams Park following the conclusion of the Six Nations. Bath will have the task of facing Brive at home, in a rematch of the 1998 Heineken Cup final, which will be played for decidedly lesser stakes. Rounding out the pack will be the marquee matchup of the quarterfinals, when Harlequins travel to Paris to take on Stade Francais.
The quarterfinalists were mostly assured of their places prior to the final weekend of play, which did not see any of the major upsets that would have been required to shake things up. Worcester collected their first win of the campaign in a 20-13 home victory over Oyonnax, ending their European season on a positive note. Dean Ryan must hope that the Warriors are able to use this victory as a jumping off point for a survival campaign, though Worcester’s prospects look dim at the moment. In the other Pool 1 contest, Sale outlasted Biarritz, winning 9-7 in the weekend’s highest stakes match. Though Biarritz would have secured passage to the quarterfinals with a bonus point victory, they were only able to muster a single try, through American winger Taku Ngwenya in the loss.
Bath cruised to their quarterfinal berth, locking it up before play even began during the final weekend. They heaped misery on Bordeaux, intent on securing top seeding for the rest of the tournament. The French capitulated by a final score of 54-13. Semesa Rokoduguni celebrated his call-up to the England Saxons with two tries, while George Ford slotted six conversions and scored a try of his own in the demolition. Mogliano kept their match against the Newport Gwent Dragons respectable, losing 24-12, though they ended their European adventure without even a losing bonus point to show for their efforts.
Newcastle concluded their European campaign with a 28-0 victory over Bucharest at home, and will rue their losses to Brive which cost them the chance to progress further in the competition. The French side triumphed over Calvisano 31-9. Brive will go down as one of the Amlin Challenge Cup’s most consistent sides, as they reached the quarter-finals for the 11th time, and the eighth time in a row. Though Brive would hope to make a move to the Heineken Cup at some point, their ability to succeed in the Amlin has provided the club with a semblance of European pride throughout the last decade.
London Wasps destroyed Viadana 64-17, savaging the Italian side’s dream of snatching a victory in this year’s competition. Grenoble triumphed over fellow French side Bayonne, running in five tries to finish in front, 34-16. The match was a complete dead rubber, as it did not have any impact on qualification for the quarterfinals, and did not result in any changes in pool positions either.
Pool Five wrapped things up as expected, as Stade Francais and London Irish both romped to bonus point victories. The pair wound up tied at the top of the pool with 24 points each, but Stade advanced on the basis of their head to head points scored, as each team managed to take a match from the other.
Though the pool stages of the Amlin Cup often resemble walkovers, the knockout stages offer real competition for all sides involved. This year’s strong English flavor should make for compelling matchups, and though Northampton must be crowned favorites at this early stage, plenty of time remains for other sides to gain form, and Bath lurk as legitimate challengers from the lower competition. Though we must wait for April to witness the conclusion of the tournament, spectators can look forward to intriguing viewing come spring.
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