SALFORD, ENGLAND – The Amlin Cup heats up this weekend with a quarterfinal round headlined by English contestants. Six of the eight clubs to reach the knockout rounds hail from the Aviva Premiership, while Stade Francais and Grenoble make up the balance. Things kick off this afternoon at 3 pm EST, when Northampton travel to Salford to take on the Sharks at AJ Bell Stadium. Results bear watching, as a strong performance in the Amlin can do much to make up for a disappointing Heineken Cup or domestic campaign. Without further ado, here’s our Amlin Cup Quarterfinal Preview.
Sale Hope for Repeat
Just two weeks ago, Sale upset the applecart when they beat the Saints the upset of the season so far. With rejuvenated playoff hopes, Steve Diamond’s side will be hoping to push on in the competition, and will be in possession of plenty of confidence. However, Diamond has not named a full-strength side, demonstrating to some that he has chosen to prioritize the Premiership run-in. Nick McLeod will run out as the fly-half, while Danny Cipriani and Mark Cueto are both rested. Northampton and Sale have lifted the Challenge Cup trophy in the past, with Sale victorious in 2002 and 2005, while the Saints were triumphant in 2009. This match marks Sale’s return to the big stage, as they have not seen a European knock-out round since 2006. For the Saints, the stakes are equally high. They have not lost four consecutive matches in recent memory, and another defeat would only add to the growing narrative that the East Midlands outfit has lost their way in recent weeks. Rugby fans can hope for some fireworks; this match is certain to get feisty.
Stade Looking to Make Good
In 2011, Harlequins and Stade Francais matched up in the 2011 Amlin Cup Final. Stade will be looking for revenge after that memorable encounter, while Harlequins want to extend their European campaign after a difficult exit from the top-tier competition. Chris Robshaw leads a team that desperately needs some good news. Currently, the Quins sit in sixth place, though their position in next season’s European competition looks as though it is safe. They are unquestionably one of the teams that will be attempting to make a weak domestic season look better through European success, and have named a full strength side including England internationals Danny Care, Mike Brown, and Joe Marler. Stade had a difficult time making it through the group stages of the Amlin Cup, and looked vulnerable to defeat at several points. Last season the French team turned it on in the knockout stages, and they will be hoping for similar inspiration in 2014.
Bath Confident Against Brive
Bath rampaged through the group stages, and as a reward, they are facing Top 14 strugglers Brive. The French team has an astonishing victory over Clermont last weekend to build upon, while Bath are keeping a close eye on maintaining fitness ahead of the playoffs. Brive conceded more turnovers (an astonishing 117) in the group stages than any other side, a statistic that will surely be in the forefront of Bath’s gameplan. To balance their carelessness, the French outfit did manage to steal 20 opposition lineouts, a competition best. There is no familiarity between the sides: the last time they met was in 1998. However, expect no love to be lost; when French and English teams meet, a good match is usually in the offing.
Gloucester Tries to Take Advantage
The Cherry and Whites have already met with London Wasps twice before this season, and the sides have split their contests. Gloucester’s struggles away from home this term are well known, and despite the lack of atmosphere at Adams Park, they may have difficulty adjusting. Wasps were tested in the group stages, coming out on top of Bayonne and Grenoble. Just as the Amlin Cup represents the last hope of silverware for the Quins, both Gloucester and the Wasps know that this quarterfinal will go a long way towards making domestic ills right. Wasps have been particularly poor in the past two months, only winning one of their last seven matches, while the Cherry and Whites have shown signs of revitalization after a traumatic first half of the campaign. Dai Young has high hopes of keeping the young Wasps in contention, noting that in the past two years, the capital side has only lost to eventual tournament winners. Though such a status is likely beyond both of these clubs this campaign, advancement into the semifinals would put a nice gloss on their yearbooks.
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