CASTRES, FRANCE – Statistics only tell part of the story, but a little reminder about the 934 points scored with 104 tries in 20 matches over the opening two Amlin Cup weekends isn’t a bad way to kick off this preview of the competition’s third round of games.
Worcester Warriors and Biarritz will be aiming to banish their domestic blues at Sixways on Thursday evening. Both sides are bottom of their respective domestic leagues, but the Basque Country side at least have the morale-boosting memory of two wins in their last three Top 14 games – though last weekend’s defeat at home to Bordeaux will have knocked their frail confidence. The Warriors, however, are still without a win in the Aviva Premiership – but they did beat Cardiff Blues in the Anglo-Welsh Cup last month.
Pool One leaders Sale Sharks look to maintain their perfect Amlin Cup record at Oyonnax. That’s easier said than done. Winning at Stade Charles Mathon has already proved beyond the likes of Top 14 sides Clermont, Toulon, Perpignan, Brive, Castres and the Sharks’ Pool One rivals Biarritz.
Bath’s veteran scrum-half Peter Stringer has said his team-mates are desperate for European silverware. The English side won the Heineken Cup in 1998, and the Amlin Cup in 2008, but were knocked out of the competition by eventual runners-up Stade Francais last season, after a near-perfect pool stage performance that saw them pick up 29 out of 30 possible points.
They have started well again this season, with eight points from two wins in two games – and are expected to add another victory this week as they head to Italy to face Pool Two minnows Mogliano in the first match of the December Amlin Cup double header match-up.
Newport-Gwent Dragons, meanwhile, entertain mercurial Bordeaux Begles. The sides are level on points in Pool Two, but the Welsh side will start as strong favourites given that Raphael Ibanez’s side struggle on the road.
Pool Three leaders Brive will have to be at the top of their game against the mighty forward power of Lynn Howells’ hard-tackling Bucharest Wolves. The Romanian side comfortably beat Calvisano last time out, and came within minutes of shocking Premiership side Newcastle Falcons in the opening round of the competition. But now their opponents know what they’re up against, the Wolves could well find life in Pool Three starting to become a little more difficult.
Despite their 35-9 thumping at the hands of Harlequins last time out, Dean Richards’ Newcastle are starting to get to grips with life in the English top flight. They will prove too strong and too smart for a Calvisano side still looking for their first win in Amlin Cup this season.
After a shocking start to their domestic season, Wasps are starting to move in the right direction. But they face a tough day what promises to be a bitterly cold Stade des Alpes against a Grenoble side that got the better of Toulouse in the Top 14 at the weekend. Not many visiting sides win here, and the next two matches will be crucial to Wasps’ hopes of qualifying for the knockout phase of the competition.
Top 14 strugglers Bayonne will probably be pleased that they’re back on home turf against Italian outfit Viadana this week. The French side were thumped at Castres last weekend and are desperately in need of a win to kickstart their season.
Something has to give in Pool Five, where unbeaten leaders London Irish face unbeaten second-placed side and last season’s Amlin Cup runners-up Stade Francais. It promises to be the match-up of the week, if not the tournament as the two sides duke it out for qualification rights.
At the other end of the Pool, I Cavalieri Prato and Lusitanos XV are fighting to avoid the wooden spoon. The Portuguese representative side have only scored nine points in two games so far, and conceded 128, so are most likely to end up at the bottom of the pile. The Italians pushed Stade all the way earlier in the season, and will be confident of picking up their first of two expected wins in the competition.
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