The Cheetahs and Lions are on the prowl abroad as the second half of the European Challenge Cup pool stage gets underway this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
All the teams remain in the race for a crucial top-six finish in their respective pools, with the added carrot of home-ground advantage in the playoffs also on offer to the highest-ranked sides.
The Cheetahs have their work cut out for them as they square off against the Scarlets in Llanelli on Friday night while the Lions are in Paris for a showdown with Stade Francais on Saturday afternoon.
We focus on the South African sides’ fixtures and three other key clashes of the third round:
Scarlets v Cheetahs
Friday, 13 January – 22:00
Nothing comes easy for the Cheetahs. They’re the only team starved of regular competition and their invitation to European club rugby’s second-tier party came with the caveat that they have to base themselves in Parma.
Still, they made a winning start to the tournament, toppling Pau 21-16 away, before crashing to a 45-26 loss to the Scarlets at “home” in Round Two. The Welsh side blitzed the Bloemfontein outfit in the first half to establish an unassailable lead, with the Cheetahs clawing their way to a valuable four-try bonus point in the second half.
Their chances of turning the tables against the Pool B leaders were slim to begin with, but with Springbok trio Ruan Pienaar, Frans Steyn and Oupa Mohoje forced to withdraw from the touring squad due to injury, the writing’s on the wall for the luckless Cheetahs. Rain will limit the margin, though.
Pau v Dragons
Their Round Two encounter was a thriller that could’ve gone either way. The Dragons seemed to get out of jail when Max Clark scored a try in the final play of the game that would’ve brought them back within one point, with an easy conversion in front of the posts to come. However, after lengthy deliberation, the referee adjudged the ball was dotted down short of the line and Pau escaped Rodney Parade with a 27-21 win.
Pau are a fiery bunch. Their coach Sebastien Piqueronies copped a 10-week ban after chewing out and putting his hands on the referee after their opening-round loss to the Cheetahs and with their home fans fuelling their fire, they should edge another close contest.
Stade Francais v Lions
Saturday, 14 January – 15:00
Like the Cheetahs, a depleted Lions pride have made their way to Paris. Jordan Hendrikse and Henco van Wyk limped off in the 33-3 loss to Munster last weekend and at the time of writing, it was unclear if they’ll join regular captain Reinhard Nothnagel, Sti Sithole, Ruan Dreyer, Francke Horn and Sanele Nohamba on the sidelines.
They’ve lost all three of their games (in the United Rugby Championship) heavily since their sparkling 30-12 win over Stade Francais, and it’s important to note the Parisians sent a young team to Johannesburg.
The French outfit are notoriously tough to beat at home and are expected to field their big guns. Rain will play a role, but the hosts will be hunting and end up snagging a bonus-point win.
Bath v Toulon
Saturday, 14 January – 17:15
The rematch of Toulon’s 29-7 win in the previous round comes with a green and gold sub-plot. Toulon fans, who have a history of turning on mega-money international signings who don’t live up to expectations, are frustrated with Cheslin Kolbe and the limited impact he’s made since his switch from Toulouse in 2021 due to injuries and not getting enough attacking opportunities when he plays.
The Springbok superstar looks set to feature in his first European Challenge Cup match of the season this weekend, which makes this one worth watching by itself. In addition, Bath are a different side at home and should make Toulon work hard for their win in a much more competitive clash than the first meeting.
Perpignan v Glasgow Warriors
Saturday, 14 January – 22:00
Perpignan, by all accounts, should’ve been pummelled by high-flying Glasgow in the last round. They prop up the TOP 14 table whereas the Warriors have been on a hot streak since the start of December. They’ve now won six in a row, none bigger than last weekend’s last-gasp triumph over the URC champion Stormers.
Yet, Perpignan gave them a scare when they took the lead on the hour-mark before a penalty try and yellow card led to a 26-18 win for the Scots. That could either see them threaten an upset again or Franco Smith’s men taking the lessons they learned from the first fixture and staying focused for the full 80 minutes. I’m expecting the latter.