The Lions and Cheetahs are chief among the pack fighting for survival in the final round of the European Challenge Cup pool stage this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Seven sides have already ensured their progression to the Round of 16, namely Cardiff, Toulon, Connacht, the Bristol Bears, the Glasgow Warriors, the Scarlets, and Benetton.
Four places are reserved for the teams who finish ninth and 10th in the European Champions Cup pools, leaving just five spots for the chasing pack.
The South African sides are in action on Sunday with the Lions looking to slay the Dragons in Newport and the Cheetahs playing Pau in their adopted home of Parma.
We focus on the South African sides’ fixtures and three other key clashes of the fourth round:
Glasgow Warriors v Bath
Friday, 20 January – 22:00
There’s only one qualifying spot left in Pool A and five teams fighting for it – Perpignan, Bath, Zebre, Brive (all on one), and the Newcastle Falcons (0).
Zebre (away to Toulon), Brive (home against table-topping Cardiff), and the Newcastle Falcons (home against Connacht) are all expected to go down, leaving sixth-placed Perpignan and seventh-placed Bath (separated by a points difference of one) with the best chances.
Glasgow snuck a 22-19 win in the sides’ first showdown and as motivated as Bath are, Franco Smith’s Warriors will match their energy as they aim to possibly improve on their fifth seeding. “Freezing rain” is forecast, so expect the hosts to eke out a hard-earned win.
Bristol Bears v Perpignan
Friday, 20 January – 22:00
It’ll be sub-zero temperatures in Bristol as well, but at least it won’t be raining. Still, Perpignan’s hill is steeper than Bath’s. The French outfit offered little resistance in their 19-5 tournament-opening loss to the Bears and have lost all five of their games since, including a 40-26 walloping by the Warriors last weekend.
A bombshell dropped on Wednesday when Bristol were deducted five match points and fined €10,000 for selecting an ineligible player, Elliott Stooke, as a replacement in their match day squads against Perpignan and Zebre. They’re now fifth on nine points, still enough to safeguard their knockout berth. Despite this disruption, they’ll send Perpignan away empty-handed.
Benetton v Stade Francais
Saturday, 21 January – 17:15
Five teams will vie for the four remaining places in Pool B – the Lions, Stade Francais, the Dragons (all on eight points), Pau and the Cheetahs (both on six). Winless Bayonne are out of contention.
Benetton have banked their spot thanks to big back-to-back wins over Bayonne. Second on 10 points, a bonus-point win here would make them the overnight leaders but the Scarlets (14) are set to bag a full house against Bayonne on Saturday.
Fourth-placed Stade Francais are all but through but they do have more to play for, which begs the question – how motivated are Benetton for this clash? That will be revealed once the teams are announced.
If they go with a full-strength team, Benetton will defend their turf. Otherwise, back the visitors.
Dragons v Lions
Sunday, 22 January – 15:00
The Lions are all but assured of their place in the last 16. In third place with a slightly better points difference than Stade Francais (6) and the Dragons (8), one log point should be enough to advance, however, they’ll look to hold onto the third seeding and arrest their slump.
The 17-7 loss to Stade Francais last weekend was their fourth in a row and the second on a tour that’s getting tougher by the minute. Injuries and ill-discipline – they conceded three second-half yellow cards after leading 7-0 at halftime in Paris – speak to a weary touring party.
The Dragons, in turn, are in better shape from a personnel point of view and would’ve been revitalised by their 21-15 away win over Pau. The teams’ Ellis Park encounter ended in a 31-all stalemate but the Lions will draw belief from the fact they’ve won both United Rugby Championship ties, the first 21-11 in Newport followed by a 33-25 triumph at home.
However, the here and now-points to the hosts outlasting the Lions.
Cheetahs v Pau
Sunday, 22 January – 17:15
Their situation is simple – it’s do-or-die. The winners move on and the losers go home. The Cheetahs are nothing if not fighters; that fight almost saw them upset the Pool B log-leading Scarlets in their backyard last weekend, succumbing 20-17 in the end, and they’ll go tooth and nail at Pau, who they pipped 21-16 in Round One.
They won’t have true home-ground advantage – with the fixture taking place in the Free Staters’ Italian base – but the fight they showed in Llanelli suggests they have enough left in the tank to do the double over the French side and reach the Round of 16.