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European Challenge Cup: 8 Players To Watch 

The Challenge Cup which is the 2nd tier competition in European rugby begins this weekend.

Viliame Mata of Edinburgh Rugby

The Challenge Cup which is the 2nd tier competition in European rugby begins this weekend. Every team aims to win it in order to be elevated to the Champions Cup for next season. Bet Central brings you 8 players who could help their sides get continental glory.

Ali Mgijima (Cheetahs)

After helping the Pumas get to 2 consecutive Currie Cup finals winning 1 and losing the other, Ali Mgijima secured a move to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein where he spent his formative years in professional rugby. He goes to a place with a wealth of experience especially in his position where he has the ear of former Springboks Frans Steyn and veteran Robert Ebersohn.

He will look to hit the ground running on the field as he uses his hard running at the inside centre to get the Cheetahs over the advantage line. The 28-year-old also boasts impeccable speed, and he will hope that the Hawies Fourie employs a game suited to his strengths. Mgijima should be one of the stars for the Cheetahs.

Taine Basham (Dragons)

Taine Basham is the great-grandson of Welsh boxing legend Johnny Basham, and he exudes the toughness of a boxer in his play at openside flank. Though Basham will sit out the 1st 2 rounds due to a 4-week suspension for a dangerous tackle on Ross Byrne, he is still one of the most important players for the Dragons.

He will be determined to do well this season in order to make gains on his Welsh openside rivals. Jack Morgan and Tommy Reffell are ahead of him in the pecking order, and he will look to fight for glory this season, but added to that he will want a spot back in the Welsh squad for the 6 Nations.

Manuel Zuliani (Benetton)

One would say he’s mostly a bench player, but even amongst bench players who get a start here and there, there are those of high value. When one thinks about this role, former Bulls and Springboks utility forward Danie Rossouw comes to mind. For Benetton and Italy, Manuel Zuliani occupies that role.

He is an impact player at both club and Test level. He was immense in contributing to Benetton’s run to the final of the Challenge Cup last season. He looks set to do more of the same this year after being stellar in his early season run in the URC. Zuliani is a safety net for his team, and he will be important once again whether coming off the bench or starting.

Asenathi Ntlabankanye (Lions)

Asenathi Ntlabankanye is a man mountain, weighing a substantial 153kg, he is tough to bring down and practically immovable at the scrum. He is also one of the Lion’s most important players as the rebuild they have been putting together for years starts to take shape with the team playing a good brand of rugby despite being unlucky with the results at times.

The 24-year-old tighthead prop will go into this campaign a lot more mature as a scrummager and a ball carrier showing that despite the youthful nature of their team, they are ready to compete at the highest level. Ntlabankanye rarely gets the plaudits in a Lions team boasting the explosive powers of Emanuel Tshituka, Ruan Venter, etc, but this is the season he could really come into his own.

Paolo Garbisi (Montpellier)

The 2nd Italian on this list and a much more well-known one this time around. It’s scarcely believable that Paolo Garbisi is only 23 years old, it seems like he has been around forever as far as the Italian national side is concerned. At the domestic level, he represents French side Montpellier, and he has been a great success even seeing off Handre Pollard who played 2nd fiddle to him before moving to the Leicester Tigers.

The flyhalf will be crucial once again playing in tandem with South African scrumhalf Cobus Reinach and inside centre Jan Serfontein. It is a very attacking trio and the key in bringing the best out of this team will be Garbisi. He has matured as a kicker over the years to add to his attacking instinct and he could be the standout amongst the flyhalves in this competition.

Luka Matkava (Black Lion)

Georgian Rugby continues to make huge inroads in Europe and perhaps the beginning of the road to being included in Europe’s elite Test tournament, the 6 Nations, is the inclusion of a Georgian team in European competition at club level. That is exactly what will be happening with the Black Lion who will make a 1st appearance in this competition.

One of their standout players in recent times is Georgian Test flyhalf Luka Matkava. The 22-year-old broke Welsh hearts in the Autumn Nations Series when he kicked Georgia to win in November last year. He was part of a historic moment and there is every chance he will be part of history with Black Lion as well. An accomplished goal kicker with a sharp distribution game, he will be one of Lion’s aces in their 1st season at this level.

Viliame Mata (Edinburgh)

The big Fijian no.8 had a terrific World Cup in France and would have returned to Edinburgh satisfied with his output at the global showpiece. Viliame Mata isn’t only important to the Fiji national team, but also to his club Edinburgh who will look to raise the Scottish flag in this competition.

The bruising ball carrier will be an important part of the team as he looks to use his considerable bulk to get over the advantage line. The Fijian’s strength doesn’t lie only in his play on attack and defence, he is also a respected leader in that Edinburgh camp, and he will look to inspire through his play. 

Santiago Carreras (Gloucester)

Santi Carreras is already carving his name into Gloucester folklore. The Gloucester fans love the Argentine Test player as he has given them so many amazing moments over the past couple of seasons and he continues to do so in the Premiership. The 25-year-old has found a rugby home in Gloucester.

For Argentina, he mostly plays at flyhalf, but at Gloucester, he is often deployed at fullback, and on occasion, he flies out on the wing. Carreras is an irresistible attack force when he has the ball in hand, his dynamism allows Gloucester to attack through so many different outlets. The Argentinean utility back will be one of the most exciting players to watch in the Challenge Cup.

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