European Challenge Cup - Preview
Contenders eye new-look Challenge Cup
October 7, 2009
Wasps, Saracens and Castres are the teams to beat in the early rounds of the European Challenge Cup © Getty Images
With a new sponsor on board and some of the biggest names to grace the tournament in years set for battle, this season's European Challenge Cup will provide a compelling feast of rugby.
For the first time the quarter-final stages will feature the third, fourth and fifth ranked runners-up from the Heineken Cup Pools. The change will make for a more competitive and exciting conclusion to the competition, throwing up some top-level showdowns as the teams look to secure the silverware and with it a place at Europe's top table next season.
As ever, the representatives from England and France will be joined by several European minnows, with Romanian side Bucuresti Oaks, Spanish champions Olympus Madrid and Parma, Rovigo, Padova and Rugby Roma of Italy all packing down for the group stages.
Early favourites for the title will be two-time Heineken Cup champions Wasps and Brendan Venter's dogged Guinness Premiership leaders Saracens, while the French challenge sees in-form Castres joined by last season's beaten finalists Bourgoin and Jonny Wilkinson's Toulon.
Check out our Pool by Pool preview for all you need to know ahead of kick-off.
Pool One: Bourgoin, Leeds Carnegie, Overmach Rugby Parma, Bucuresti Oaks
The favourites: Bourgoin
Bourgoin's troubled start to the season financially saw 14 of their players have their licences temporarily revoked, but on-field they have shown plenty of fight in domestic victories over Top 14 champions Perpignan and heavyweights Biarritz. They will be the team to beat in Pool One, where their sternest competition will be newly-promoted Guinness Premiership side Leeds.
The Yorkshire men have made a slow start on their return to England's top flight and will likely have to win in France to take top spot. Neither side will fear trips to face Bucuresti Oaks and Overmach Parma, so it's looking like a two-horse race for the quarter-final spot.
Pool Two: Worcester Warriors, Connacht Rugby, Montpellier, Olympus Rugby XV Madrid
The favourites: Worcester
Mike Ruddock's Warriors will fancy their chances in a Pool comprising Magners League minnows Connacht, who do have some history in this competition, and under-performing Top 14 outfit Montpellier. The tournament outsiders also pack down in Pool Two, with Spanish entrants Madrid out to cause a few waves with an upset.
Worcester's Premiership form has been patchy, but recent victories over Sale and Leeds have shown flashes of attacking intent that should prove too much for their competitors. The away trips to Galway and Montpellier could decide the outcome of the Pool, with a game at the Stade Yves du Manoir a difficult proposition.
Pool 3: Saracens, Castres Olympique, Toulon, Rugby Rovigo
The favourites: Saracens
The closest thing to a 'pool of death' that the tournament can boast sees Premiership leaders Saracens joined by Top 14 sides Castres and Toulon.
The unbeaten Sarries will have eyes on the return of Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson and former player Kris Chesney to English shores, but cannot underestimate the challenge of Castres.
Currently sitting second in the Top 14, a point behind leaders Clermont, Castres' rich vein of form sees them ahead of perennial title-challengers Perpignan, Toulouse and Stade Francais in the domestic pecking order.
The away legs will again be vital, with Saracens' trips to face Toulon at the Stade Mayol and Castres at the Stade Pierre Antoine looking vital. Their home form at Vicarage Road will need to be good, as a reliance on the French teams travelling poorly could prove costly.
Pool 4: London Wasps, Rugby Roma, Bayonne, Racing-Metro 92
The favourites: Wasps
Wasps' foray in to the competition that they won in 2003 will comprise tough tests against star-studded Racing-Metro and inconsistent but dangerous Bayonne.
The depth of Wasps' squad and the European pedigree of players such as Phil Vickery, Simon Shaw, Tom Varndell and Serge Betsen makes them one of the front-runners for top honours at the end of the season and their showdown with Racing will have quite a cast list.
Springbok Francois Steyn, former All Black fly-half Andrew Mehrtens, France's'Caveman' Sebastien Chabal and French skipper Lionel Nallet all ply their trade at the Stade Yves du Manoir.
The final team in the group is Italian side Roma, who were admitted to the Pool stages after Calvisano's withdrawal from the Italian Super 10 due to financial problems.
Pool 5: Newcastle Falcons, Montauban, Petrarca Rugby, Albi
The favourites: Newcastle
Newcastle's primary aim for the season will be to avoid another Premiership relegation struggle, an aim that has been helped by a relatively straightforward European draw.
Their main competition will come from Montauban, who have endured a mixed start to the Top 14 season. Thrilling victories over Stade Francais and Toulon have been followed by a string of losses. They will be a handful at the Stade de Sapiac and boast one of the tournament's most dangerous finishers in wing Vilimoni Delasau.
The group is completed by newly-promoted Top 14 strugglers Albi, who have one win to their name this season, and Italian side Padova.