It may not have matched the excitement of the finale to the group stages in the Champions Cup but the final weekend of the Challenge Cup has thrown up an interesting quarter final line-up. The second tier competition has a history of one-sided affairs but this season there is evidence that the revamp of European competitions has improved competitiveness and improved the offering to supporters. For example Russian debutants Enisei-STM defied the odds and defeated both Brive and Newcastle Falcons, and the carrot of a Champions Cup place for the winner has roused some of the French clubs into action.
Unlike the Champions Cup there is representation from the Pro 12 from both Ireland and Wales, but again the English sides dominate providing half of the quarter finalists. This is how each tie matches up:
Harlequins vs London Irish
Harlequins qualified as top seeds with five bonus point victories earned before a 42-9 thumping at Montpellier. They have been the tournament favourites from the start and their form in the Aviva Premiership suggest they will be the team to beat.
The Exiles may be struggling in the Premiership but have posted some good results such as a 38-6 victory over last season’s finalists Edinburgh to sneak into the quarter finals. League survival will of course be their priority so an upset at The Stoop seems unlikely in this tie.
Grenoble vs Connacht
Ireland’s sole representative Connacht have reached the quarters for the second year in a row and have another tough away trip following last year’s defeat to Gloucester. Grenoble did well to top their group with five victories out of six and sealed a home tie. Connacht were narrowly beaten by Brive in their first trip to France this season and should use this chance to step out of their provincial rival’s shadows, although French sides are never easy at home.
Sale Sharks vs Montpellier
Perhaps the hardest of the ties to predict will be this match-up at the AJ Bell stadium, with Montpellier having hammered the top seeds to seal their place. However, Sale are no pushovers at home, with impressive wins over Northampton and Wasps in the Premiership although it will remains to be seen whether they have the squad depth to be competing on two fronts come May. The interesting twist here is that if Montpellier win here they will be rewarded with a home semi-final against either Gloucester or Newport Gwent Dragons, which may be enough motivation for the French side to make this the best game of the round.
Gloucester vs Newport-Gwent Dragons
Quarter final four will see a local derby at Kingsholm and current holders Gloucester looking to extend their winning run in this competition to 16 games. That record was under fire in round six against Zebre where a second-string Cherry and White side laboured to a 14-11 victory to finish with six wins from six. The Dragons ended the pool stage with a disappointing 38-5 defeat away at Sale Sharks but would love to better their semi-final appearance last season and of course fly the European flag for Wales after Ospreys’ agonising exit in the Champions Cup. Gloucester do have the magic touch in this tournament and given it may well again be their best route into the Champions Cup I cannot see past a home win here.
— Michael Kovacs (@mikekovacsLWOS) January 28, 2016