Away Sides Cause Upsets in Challenge Cup Quarter-Finals

As with the Champions Cup there will be a new name on the trophy in the second tier competition as the away sides cause upsets in the European Challenge Cup Quarter-Finals, the most surprising being Newport Gwent Dragons defeating the current holders Gloucester at Kingsholm.

Over the years of European Quarter=Finals we normally expect one away victory out of the four games; home advantage in knockout games certainly does seem to offer an edge as well as the financial gains made from hosting an extra game. However this season we were close to seeing a clean sweep of away victories. Is this therefore a successful demonstration of the value of new rules meaning winning away quarter finalists are rewarded with a home semi-final?

Away Sides Cause Upsets in Challenge Cup Quarter-Finals

First on Friday night in-form Montpellier became the first team to win at the AJ Bell stadium this season. Even despite the French side’s excellent form in the Top 14, where they currently sit second, a home win may have been predicted by many.  There is a cliché in football concerning a ‘cold wet and windy Tuesday evening in Stoke’, which could easily read ‘cold wet and windy Friday evening in Manchester’, an environment in which the stereotypical French club side would not expected to be up for. However the men from the south of France certainly were up for it and will be in warmer climes for the semi-final, where they will face Newport Gwent Dragons.

The Welsh side, who are now the only Pro 12 side left in either European competition, stunned their rivals from over the Severn Bridge by taking a boisterous and vocal group of supporters and a daring attitude to Gloucester that saw them finish victors 23 points to 21. The winning score came from a decision to go for a lineout rather than a penalty to tie the game (no-one tell Chris Robshaw). The men from Gwent knew they would still have to travel in a potential semi-final but still they embraced the winner-takes-all mentality.

At the Twickenham Stoop London Irish almost caused an even bigger upset by running Harlequins very close, at one point holding a 30-18 lead but were eventually defeated 30-18. With the looming relegation decider against Newcastle Falcons in the Aviva Premiership the Exiles could play without fear and almost bagged themselves a home semi-final. As it is, Harlequins will host Grenoble who scraped past Connacht 33-32.

Clearly then it has been a great success to offer a home semi-final to quarter-final away winners? It certainly produced close and exciting games and removed any one-sided games such as Exeter 48 Newcastle 13 in 2014/15, a scoreline that easily could have been replicated at The Stoop. On the other hand is it fair that a side could sneak into the quarter-finals after a poor group stage performance, win one match and get a home semi-final? What’s more doesn’t this reduce the incentive to invest the effort to come top of a pool?

The Challenge Cup has undergone many changes over the years, from when teams could drop down from the Heineken Cup and from the days when winning the trophy consistently meant a place at the top table. With so many rule changes it is often difficult to understand qualification and the possible permutations of results. This year however seems to have hit upon a strong formula that should be continued in future years to ensure the European Challenge Cup is a respected and valuable competition to those who participate.

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