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European Challenge Cup Predictions – Round of 16

The Lions and Cheetahs will aim to fly the South African flag high in the European Challenge Cup Round of 16 this weekend.

Cheetahs

The Lions and Cheetahs will aim to fly the South African flag high in the European Challenge Cup Round of 16 this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.

Fighting for quarterfinal places are the 12 pool stage qualifiers along with the four teams demoted from the European Champions Cup, namely last season’s Challenge Cup winners, Lyon, Racing 92, Clermont, and the Sale Sharks.

Both South African teams won two and lost two of their pool games to progress to the playoffs where they face French opposition. The Cheetahs take on Toulon at Stade Felix Mayol while the Lions welcome Racing 92 to Ellis Park.

Bristol Bears v Clermont

Friday, 31 March – 21:00

Bristol hosts the first of the four sides demoted from the Champions Cup in a clash of former Challenge Cup winners. The Bears racked up four straight wins while Clermont crashed out of the top flight after winning just one of their games. In a match between evenly matched teams full of Test stars, home-ground advantage will likely prove decisive

Prediction: Bristol Bears by 3.

Scarlets v Brive

Friday, 31 March – 21:00

The Scarlets have dominated thus far, winning all four of their fixtures to top pool B and earn this favourable match-up against Brive, who could only manage one win in the pool stage and have the worst points differential of all the Round of 16 qualifiers (-91). They’ll be unable to contain the Welsh region, who should win handily. 

Prediction: Scarlets by 17.

Toulon v Cheetahs

Saturday, 01 April – 13:30

The Cheetahs scraped through by the skin of their teeth, snatching the last qualifying spot in pool B thanks to a last-gasp penalty goal by Siya Masuku that saw them edge Pau 9-6 after having beaten the French club 21-16 in the opening round and suffered back-to-back defeats to the Scarlets.

Their reward is an uphill battle against a strong Toulon side who marched into the last 16 unbeaten and claimed 19 out of a possible 20 log points to top pool A. That challenge has reached Everest levels with Frans Steyn, who’s so crucial to the Free Staters’ territory-based game, ruled out of the clash due to injury.

Toulon plays a ball-in-hand brand of rugby and for as good as the Cheetahs have been defensively in the opening rounds of the Currie Cup, this is a different level. The French outfit throws the ball around with accuracy and speed and have dangerous strike runners, all of which have seen them make the most line breaks (107) and score 14 tries.

Sustained pressure leads to individual errors and ill-discipline and I can’t see the Cheetahs holding up sufficiently to cause an upset.

Prediction: Toulon by 12.

Stade Francais v Lyon

Saturday, 01 April – 16:00

With life in the top-flight proving tough, Lyon are back in the Challenge Cup and determined to successfully defend their title. Stade Francais, who qualified fourth in pool B, are a quality outfit that sit one place above them in third in the TOP 14 table. The home team have won the last six games in this rivalry and based on that recent history, I’m backing Stade Francais to end their visitors’ reign.

Prediction: Stade Francais by 2.

Benetton v Connacht

Saturday, 01 April – 16:00 

Benetton finished second in pool B but after being beaten at home by the Lions in the United Rugby Championship last weekend, they need a bounce-back effort to stay alive. Winners of their last four fixtures, Connacht are on a roll and welcome back the likes of Six Nations Player of the Tournament nominee Mack Hansen. They’ll have too much class for their hosts.

Prediction: Connacht by 7.

Glasgow Warriors v Dragons

Saturday, 01 April – 18:30 

Glasgow are the one who’ve been breathing fire between these two teams. They qualified second in pool A with three wins and a draw and have been red-hot in the URC to climb to fourth. The Dragons, who’re 15th in the URC and coming off a 37-18 loss to the Ospreys, will be no match for Franco Smith’s men.

Prediction: Glasgow Warriors by 18.

Lions v Racing 92

Saturday, 01 April – 18:30 

The Lions and Racing are somewhat similar in that they can be erratic. In the space of a game, they can look like headless chickens one half and play like world-beaters the next as the Lions showed in their 32-28 come-from-behind win over Benetton in the URC last weekend.

Racing, one could say, are the Lions with a budget. They play a similar attacking brand of rugby but boast the superstars the Lions lack. Finn Russell, Gael Fickou, and the Springbok duo of Trevor Nyakane and Warrick Gelant are all on their books and give them an international edge that should see them end the Lions’ journey.

Prediction: Racing 92 by 10.

Cardiff v Sale Sharks

Saturday, 01 April – 21:00 

There will be a distinct Anglo-Welsh flavour to the final clash of the round as both teams are littered with international stars. Cardiff have the competition’s leading points-scorer this season, Rhys Priestland, piloting them, so discipline will be key for Sale. The Sharks’ body of work in the Premiership, which sees them sit second, is enough evidence for me to tip them for the win.

Prediction: Sale Sharks by 5.

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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 SARugby.com and senior staff writer at Rugby365.com, he boasts over 15 years’ experience and is currently a freelance sports writer.

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