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European Challenge Cup Predictions – Round 1

The Sharks head into uncharted waters while the Lions and Cheetahs resume their hunt for European Challenge Cup glory this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.


The Sharks head into uncharted waters while the Lions and Cheetahs resume their hunt for European Challenge Cup glory this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.

Eighteen clubs will start the competition with eight representatives from the United Rugby Championship, six from the TOP 14, two from the Premiership, plus two invited teams, namely the Cheetahs and Georgia’s Black Lion.

The clubs have been split into three pools of six with two TOP 14 clubs in each pool. Clubs from the same URC Shield and from the Premiership, as well as the two invitees, have been kept apart. Clubs will play four different opponents home or away with same-league matches being kept to a minimum and only impacting clubs from the URC.

The four highest-ranked clubs from each of the pools will qualify for the knockout stage where they will be joined by the clubs who finished fifth in their respective European Champions Cup pools.

The Sharks kick off their maiden Challenge Cup campaign at home against Pau, while the Cheetahs and Lions are away to Zebre and Perpignan respectively.

Clermont v Edinburgh

Friday, 8 December – 22:00

The Challenge Cup has been a happy hunting ground for Clermont. They have reached four finals, winning three and losing the other 27-26 in the last minute to Harlequins in 2004.

They narrowly missed out on Champions Cup qualification on the penultimate day of last season’s TOP 14 and are chasing a record fourth Challenge Cup title. Currently eighth in the TOP 14, they showed what they’re capable of by beating log leaders Racing 92 23-18 last weekend.

This is a tricky opening encounter for them as Edinburgh are a quality side coming off a 27-24 away win over Ulster. That said, Stade Marcel Michelin is one of France’s most feared venues and home ground advantage should prove decisive.

Prediction: Clermont by 8.

Black Lion v Gloucester

Saturday, 9 December – 14:00

Black Lion will make history by becoming the first Georgian club to play in one of EPCR’s main professional tournaments. They’re very much an unknown commodity and it remains to be seen how competitive they’ll be. One would expect them to struggle, though.

Gloucester are two-time winners and two-time runners-up of the Challenge Cup and are back in the competition after a Champions Cup Round of 16 exit last season, going down 29-26 at eventual champions La Rochelle courtesy of a last-minute try.  

With the likes of Welsh winger Louis Rees-Zammit in their ranks, the English club should cruise past the newcomers.

Prediction: Gloucester by 15.

Zebre v Cheetahs

Saturday, 9 December – 15:00

Currie Cup champions the Cheetahs return looking to make their presence felt again after reaching the knockout stage of last season’s Challenge Cup before losing to eventual winners Toulon.

Grouped in Pool 1, they’ll play Zebre, Oyonnax, Pau and the Sharks. The clash against the Sharks next weekend will be played at Bloemfontein, where after they’ll move onto their Amsterdam ‘home’ base.

They have lost two key players in Frans Steyn, who’s retired, and Siya Masuku, who’s moved to the Sharks, but evergreen general Ruan Pienaar is around for another season and will play a pivotal role for the Bloemfontein side. With a four-match series against the Western Force as their only real preparation, the Cheetahs may well be undercooked through no fault of their own.

Zebre are coming off big losses against the Lions and Stormers but have been far more competitive in the URC this year than last season, beating the Sharks and drawing with Cardiff while pushing Ulster and the Ospreys close.

There’s a lot of fight in the Cheetahs and I won’t be shocked if they prevail, but their lack of quality preparation leads me to side with the men from Parma.

Prediction: Zebre by 5.

Sharks v Pau

Saturday, 9 December – 17:15

The Challenge Cup is new territory for the Sharks, who competed in the Champions Cup last year, and they’ll be seeking to make a major splash. Ousted in the Champions Cup quarterfinals by Toulouse, they failed to retain their seat at the main table and have to feed off the scraps for the time being in the second-tier tournament.

Following this weekend’s clash with Pau and the aforementioned meeting with the Cheetahs next week, they host Oyonnax before wrapping up the pool phase away to the Dragons.   

The men from Durban have had a dreadful URC campaign to date, winning just one of their seven matches, but with an abundance of Springboks at their disposal, they could – and should – be a big fish in a small pond.

Teething problems are plentiful in their first season under John Plumtree, however, the Challenge Cup offers them a fresh start and a favourable home game first up is too good an opportunity to let slip.

Pau are no slouches. They sit fourth in the TOP 14, but French sides don’t travel well and the Sharks have so much talent that they should get out of their own way and start their new journey on a winning note.   

Prediction: Sharks by 9.

Castres v Scarlets

Saturday, 9 December – 17:15

Castres have a strong history in the Challenge Cup dating back to the early years of the competition. They reached the final of the EPCR Challenge Cup on two occasions – in 1996-97 and 1999-2000 – and lost out to French opposition in both.

Following a strong start to their domestic season – they sit fifth in the TOP 14 standings – they’ll hope that 2023-24 is the year they can add an EPCR trophy to their cabinet.

The Scarlets’ 29-23 upset win over Cardiff last weekend was just their second in the URC this season. The Welsh region are down in 13th position and don’t have the firepower to take down their French hosts.

Prediction: Castres by 14.

Ospreys v Benetton

Saturday, 9 December – 19:30

A week after doing battle in the URC, these two teams meet on the European stage. Benetton edged last weekend’s clash in Treviso 18-13 thanks to a late Giacomo Da Re try in conditions that suited the visitors.

It was Benetton’s fifth win of the season, positioning them in sixth on the log, while the Ospreys are 11th having managed three wins. The change in venues will obviously be a factor but the Italians have the grit and tactical nous to get the job done again.  

Prediction: Benetton by 3.

Dragons v Oyonnax

Saturday, 9 December – 22:00

Oyonnax return to EPCR competition after a six-year absence, a long period in which they were in France’s ProD2 play-offs every time. Champions of the ProD2 last season, they’ll be hoping to make the most of their return to prominence.

They’ve done a decent job of doing that in the TOP 14, finding themselves in 11th position. They stunned La Rochelle 19-17 last month and had a two-match winning streak snapped by Bordeaux-Begles last weekend.

The Dragons have been dreadful in the URC this season and lost heavily to a 14-man Lions side last weekend, so I have a feeling the French visitors will come away with the win.

Prediction: Oyonnax by 7.

Perpignan v Lions

Sunday, 10 December – 15:00

Had Ivan van Rooyen selected a full-strength side, I would’ve backed the Lions in this one as Perpignan, who could call on former Lion Marvin Orie, have lost two in a row and are in lowly 13th in the TOP 14.

The Lions coach have gone with a second-string squad, though, with not a single player who started in the 49-24 win over the Dragons last weekend included, so their chances of victory are slim.  

Prediction: Perpignan by 10.

Newcastle Falcons v Montpellier

Sunday, 10 December – 17:15

The Challenge Cup has been a source of happiness for Montpellier. They’ve won the silverware twice and were champions of France not two years ago but have had a bit of a rough ride since then with a number of old faces around the club moving on.

They have a decorated new Director of Rugby in Bernard Laporte, though, and have snapped up Sam Simmonds from Exeter. They’re last in the TOP 14 whereas Newcastle are last in the Premiership. This one is a tough one to call but with home ground advantage, the Falcons should pip it.  

Prediction: Newcastle Falcons by 2.

Quintin Van Jaarsveld is a former MDDA-Sanlam SA Local Sports Journalist of the Year and a former three-time Vodacom KwaZulu-Natal Sports Journalist of the Year. Formerly the sports editor and Outstanding Journalist of the Year award winner at The Fever Media Group, deputy editor at eHowzit, editor at and senior staff writer at, he boasts over 15 years’ experience and is currently a freelance sports writer.

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