Challenge Cup quarter-finals: Kick off times, TV details and team news
Connacht travel to play Sale Sharks on Friday as they bid for a place in the last four
Bundee Aki returns for Connacht against Sale. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
All four provinces are in European action this weekend, with Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster facing into quarter-final clashes.
But while all eyes are turned towards the Champions Cup - and particularly Saturday’s Leinster-Ulster derby in Dublin - it is the men from the west who will get the continental party started on Friday night.
Indeed, the Challenge Cup is also back, and though it will play second fiddle to its elder sibling there are four heavyweight last-eight fixtures to look forward to.
Europe’s second competition not only provides teams with a legitimate chance of silverware, but also offers the winners witha route into the Champions Cup.
Andy Friend’s Connacht take on familiar foes Sale Sharks on Friday night, in a curtain raiser for the weekend’s European action.
Victory for Connaht would not only put them on the brink of a place in a maiden European final, but would also give them serious momentum as they push for a place in the Pro14 play-offs.
Here is all you need to know ahead of this weekend’s Challenge Cup action.
What is it?
The quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup - rugby’s equivalent of the Europa League.
When is it?
The last-eight fixtures are to be played on Friday March 29th-Sunday March 31st.
Who’s left in it?
Connacht, Sale Sharks, Worcester Warriors, Harlequins, Bristol Bears, Clermont Auvergne and Northampton Saints are the eight teams left standing.
What are the full fixtures?
Friday March 29th
Sale Sharks v Connacht, AJ Bell Stadium (7.45pm, BT Sport)
Saturday March 30th
Worcester Warriors v Harlequins, Sixways (8.15pm, BT Sport)
Sunday March 31st
La Rochelle v Bristol Bears, Stade Marcel-Deflandre (12.45pm, BT Sport)
Clermont Auvergne v Northampton Saints (6.0pm, BT Sport)
How can I follow?
All four games, including Connacht’s clash against Sale, will be shown live BT Sport.
How did we get here?
It’s been two long months since the quarter-final line-up was confirmed, here’s a look at how each of the eight sides made it into the knock-outs, in order of seeding.
Clermont Auvergne - 1
It seems strange to have Clermont Auvergne in the Challenge Cup having been consistent Champions Cup contenders in recent years (losing finallists in 2013, 2015 and 2017), but they are favourites to win the competition for a third time. They strolled through a group containing Northampton, the Dragons and Timisoara Saracens, winning all six of their fixtures.
La Rochelle - 2
Another Top14 side stocked with French talent, La Rochelle - who played against Ulster in last year’s Champions Cup - won five of their Pool Four fixtures as they finished up second seeds. A 13-3 home defeat to Bristol in round four was the only blot on their copybook.
Sale Sharks - 3
Sale were in the same pool as quarter-final opponents Connacht, and topped the group despite winning fewer games than the province. They earned more bonus points and had a superior head-to-head record with Andy Friend’s side, meaning they secured a home quarter-final.
Worcester Warriors - 4
Worcester emerged from one of the most difficult pools with flying colours - they topped a group containing the Ospreys and the Top14’s Stade Francais and Pau, winning five of their matches. Their only defeat came away to Pau in round three, in what was otherwise a very impressive pool campaign.
Harlequins - 5
The lowest-seeded pool winners, Harlequins sneaked into the last-eight at the expense of Italian side Benetton, who have enjoyed a strong season in the Pro14. Harlequins were beaten away to Benetton and in Grenoble but won their four other ties, with Agen and Grenoble - who are currently 12th and 13th in the Top14 - propping up the pool.
Connacht - 6
Connacht were only beaten once in the pool stages - a hefty 34-13 loss away to Sale - but finished second in the group. They beat Perpignan and Bordeaux-Begles - against two Top14 sides - both home and away, but their reward for winning five fixtures is another trip to Salford in the last-eight.
Bristol Bears - 7
Three of the quarter-finals see clashes between sides who were in the same pool, and Bristol have been handed another trip to play La Rochelle. They will take great heart from their 13-3 Pool Four victory over the French side at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre - but repeating the trick could prove difficult.
Northampton Saints - 8
Northampton qualified as eighth seeds after winning four of their six pool games. They made light work of the Dragons and Timisoara Saracens - as would be expected - but fared less well against Clermont Auvergne. They were beaten 41-20 at Franlins Gardens and 48-40 away - and now another trip to the Stade Marcel Michelin awaits.
On Thursday Connacht and Sale announced their matchday 23s for Friday’s clash.
Andy Friend has been able to call-up Bundee Aki on his return from Ireland duty - however he is missing some big names up-front, including Ireland locks Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux and captain Jarad Butler.
Connacht: Darragh Leader; Niyi Adeolokun, Kyle Godwin, Bundee Aki, Cian Kelleher; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Peter McCabe, Tom McCartney (Capt), Dominic Robertson-McCoy; James Cannon, Gavin Thornbury; Eoghan Masterson, James Connolly, Paul Boyle. Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Joe Maksymiw, Robin Copeland, Caolin Blade, Tom Daly, Stephen Fitzgerald.
Sale meanwhile are without England winger Chris Ashton. Tom Curry, who enjoyed a fine Six Nations campaign with England, starts at seven while former Connacht outhalf AJ MacGinty takes the number 10 jersey.
Sale Sharks: Luke James; Denny Solomona, Sam James, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Byron McGuigan; AJ MacGinty, Faf De Klerk; Ross Harrison, Rob Webber, Joe Jones; Bryn Evans James Phillips; Jono Ross (c), Tom Curry, Josh Beaumont. Replacements: Curtis Langdon, Tom Bristow, Alexandru Tarus, Josh Strauss, Ben Curry, Will Cliff, Cameron Redpath, Aaron Reed.
Can I go?
Sale moved from Stockport County’s Edgeley Park - where they had played since 2003 - to the AJ Bell Stadium in 2012. There are plenty of tickets still available for Friday night and any Connacht supporters who want to go can purchase one HERE.
What’s the betting?
Sale 1-3 Draw 22-1 Connacht 12-5 (Handicap Sale -8 10-11)
Worcester 6-5 Draw 22-1 Harlequins 8-11 (Handicap Harlequins -2 10-11)
Le Rochelle 1-7 Draw 25-1 Bristol 9-2 (Handicap La Rochelle -14 10-11)
Clermont 1-8 Draw 33-1 Northampton 5-1 (Handicap Clermont -14 10-11)
Who are favourites to lift the trophy?
It’s hard to see past Clermont winning the whole competition, and this is reflected in the tournament odds -
Clermont Auvergne 1-2
La Rochelle 7-2
Sale Sharks 12-1
Swimming with Sharks
Connacht and Sale have become well accustomed to each other over the years - this will be the seventh meeting between the two sides, with Sale having won five of the previous six. They met in the 2004-5 Challenge Cup semi-finals, with Sale winning both legs before going on to beat Pau in the final.
Who’s on the whistle?
Sale v Connacht - Mathieu Raynal (France)
Worcester v Harlequins - Alexandre Ruiz (France)
La Rochelle v Bristol - John Lacey (Ireland)
Clermont v Northampton - George Clancy (Ireland)
The Champions Cup is too mainstream, the Challenge Cup is for the purists!
I didn’t realise there was a second competition. . .