Ryan Shortland in action on Sunday

Amlin Challenge Cup Round-up

Tuesday 10 December 2013

With Newcastle Falcons topping Pool 3 of the Amlin Challenge Cup alongside Brive, we review all the action from the weekend ahead of the Round 4 matches.

The English Premiership trio of Bath, London Wasps and London Irish are the only teams boasting 100% records after three rounds in the Amlin Challenge Cup, but Falcons’ group rivals Brive are also unbeaten as the tournament moves into the second half of the pool phase.

The second half of the back-to-back fixtures traditionally prove vital in separting sides, but there is still all to play for as the race for a last eight spot intensifies. Here is our guide to the five pools.

POOL 1

After their horrendous start to the season the signs are that Biarritz Olympique are getting stronger and are preparing to mount another major assault in Europe. Their recent record in the Amlin Challenge Cup and Heineken Cup is very impressive. They were Heineken Cup finalists in 2010 and quarter-finalists in 2011, losing to Toulouse on both occasions.

In the last two seasons in the Amlin Challenge Cup they were crowned champions in 2012 and were knocked-out by eventual winners Leinster in the semi-finals last term. Their 19-15 win at Worcester Warriors in Round 3 has put them back in the hunt for a last eight place this campaign.

That victory, coupled with Oyonaax’ home win over the previously unbeaten Sale Sharks cut the gap at the top of the table to just a single point. Biarritz lost at Sale in their opening game, but are still to host the English club.

Worcester went close once again to notching their first win of the season at home to Biarritz, but must now try to do it all over again at Parc des Sports Aguillera in Round 4. Their luck is surely going to hold sooner rather than later.

Oyonaax, buoyed by their first win in Europe last weekend, will look to add to their 16-10 home triumph when they travel to Sale Sharks in Round 4. If the Top 14 new boys can make it a notable double they could force their way into the reckoning for a quarter-final place.

POOL 2

Bath will go into their fourth round fixture with Rugby Mogliano without their director of rugby, Gary Gold, who left the club with immediate effect this week. Under the former Springbok forwards coach the side had notched up nine wins in a row in all competitions.

Their nine try demolition of the Italians away from home kept them three points clear of the Dragons at the top of the table and they will be expected to extend their winning sequence at The Rec on Saturday.

The Dragons kept their hopes alive of catching Bath by bagging a bonus point in their 40-24 home win over Bordeaux-Begles. Their challenge will be to go to France and do the double. If they can manage that - they beat Bayonne away in the 2006-07 season - then it will set-up a massive match at Rodney Parade against Bath in Round 5.

With two defeats in the first half of their campaign the odds are stacked against Bordeaux-Begles reaching the last eight, although there will be plenty of pride at stake this weekend and they won't make it easy for the Dragons.

POOL 3

The Falcons moved joint top of Pool 3 with Brive after they bettered the French side’s result in round 3. Brive won 18-13 at Bucharest Wolves on Saturday, before the Falcons picked up maximum points in a 37-15 success at home to Cammi Rugby Calvisano a day later.

The sides now sit level on 10 points, with Brive having won two and drawn one of their three games, while Newcastle have won two and lost one but claimed bonus points on two occasions.

The first of those extras came in defeat to Brive in Round 2 and the Falcons bounced back from that reverse with a five-try win over the pool’s bottom-placed side at Kingston Park. Dean Richards’ men scored three times before the break and had the bonus point sewn up with half-an-hour remaining but they were made to work harder than the scoreline suggests by a committed Calvisano side who had shared the spoils with Brive back in October.

Wing Zach Kibirige and No.8 Chris York scored a try apiece, while full-back Noah Cato grabbed a brace and referee Cedric Marchat awarded a penalty try to Newcastle in a fixture marred by a deluge of yellow cards. Marchat sent eight players to the sin bin, with six of them coming from Calvisano, who were at one stage reduced to 12 men.

The visitors scored two tries themselves through left wing Michele Visentin and No.8 Braam Steyn but will have to improve their discipline if they are to turn things around at the Peroni Stadium on Saturday.

Brive had to see off a brave Bucharest side to stay unbeaten as the Wolves produced another fine display having already beaten Calvisano and coming within a point of toppling Newcastle in Round 1. Bucharest fought back from a 9-6 half-time deficit to lead 13-9 thanks to Valentin Popirlan’s converted 56th minute try but Brive refused to buckle and Thomas Laranjeira’s boot saw them home at the Stadium Arcul de Triumf.

POOL 4

London Wasps took a huge step towards the knockout stages of the Amlin Challenge Cup with a stunning demolition of Grenoble on Saturday night. The 2003 tournament winners eased to a 47-7 success at the Stade Lesdiguieres, securing maximum points thanks to a seven-try haul that saw Wasps regain top spot in Pool 3 following Bayonne’s win over Viadana.

Victory made it three straight European wins and 14 points from a possible 15 for Dai Young’s men as they look to build on last season’s Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final showing. And, if the scoreline itself wasn't impressive enough, the fact that no away side had won on Grenoble’s home patch all season added even greater gloss to the achievement.

The result leaves Grenoble’s own Amlin aspirations hanging by a thread, as they slipped to two defeats in three pool games ahead of the return leg at Adams Park on Sunday. Cedric Beal’s second half score was all Grenoble could muster as they failed to carry their impressive domestic form on to the European stage.

Wasps’ biggest challengers for a place in the last eight are now definitely Bayonne after they temporarily moved top of the table with a bonus-point win over Viadana 24 hours earlier.

The Basque outfit were beaten 26-10 in Wycombe in October but they bounced back by touching down nine times against the Italians at the Stade Jean Dauger. Viadana secured a surprise success the last time they played at the same venue back in 2008 but they never looked like repeating the feat and a penalty try was all they had to show for their efforts as they lost for a third time this term.

POOL 5

London Irish can put one foot in the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals with a second successive victory over Stade Francais. Tom Fowlie and Alex Lewington scored tries while Shane Geraghty kicked 14 points as the Exiles maintain their unbeaten start to the tournament with a 24-13 win over the Paris club.

And there will be plenty at stake in the return match at Stade Jean Bouin if the closely contested tie at the Madejski Stadium, that included five yellow cards, is anything to go by.

Stade, last season’s runners-up, have been far from their best in the tournament this campaign though are unbeaten at their newly rebuilt home ground and have already beaten the likes of Heineken Cup finalists Clermont-Auvergne and Toulon in the Top 14.

A second defeat would likely spell the end of Stade’s hopes of going one better than last season’s appearance in the final and leave London Irish to push for a home tie in the quarter-finals. However a home victory would leave both sides in a shoot-out to secure as many points - and tries - in their remaining games against I Cavalieri Prato and Lusitanos.

Prato bounced back from their agonising defeat to Stade Francais with a bonus-point 40-22 win over Lusitanos. The Italians were edged out late on by the French giants in Round 2 after a heroic display on home soil in which they played for nearly an hour with 14 men after Giacomo Bernini's red card. But they carried on where they left off in terms of performance levels as they had a try-scoring bonus point sewn up before half-time against the Portuguese newcomers at the Stadio Enrico Chersoni. Lusitanos started and finished the stronger, leading 10-7 after 20 minutes and scoring two late tries through openside flanker Vasco Fragoso Mendes, and will hope to build on that for the re-match in Lisbon.

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