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Saturday, December 17, 2005


Other Tournaments: English rise to top as French eye the future

By Matthew Pryor

IF THE best French teams have flexed their muscles in the Heineken Cup, the European Challenge Cup continues to be the preserve of the English. All five pools are led by English teams. It shows the strength, or at least level playing field, of the Guinness Premiership relative to the French championship, where the top four or five teams are so much stronger than the rest.

The French clubs in the Challenge Cup are experimenting, whereas most of the English teams see it as the best way to qualify for the Heineken Cup next season. Thus Brive did not seem too disappointed to lose 25-22 away to Borders last weekend because they fielded a young team.

“We were looking at the European Challenge Cup as an opportunity to give our younger players the chance to get some high-quality rugby, but things are starting to look good for us in terms of qualification,” Jérôme Bonvoison, the Brive captain, said.

Things are looking better for the English, but this weekend Northampton, Worcester and London Irish, who all won close-fought home games last weekend, face tricky away games against the same opponents. Northampton had to go to Narbonne last night, where Bristol lost 20-13 in the first round of matches in October, and today Worcester are away to Connacht and London Irish away to Agen.

Newcastle Falcons should stroll past L’Aquila at Kingston Park tomorrow and although they still have to travel to Brive, leadership of pool four is almost secure. Gloucester look favourites to be the top seeds, having beaten Bayonne 26-10 in the first round of games and Toulon, the bottom team in the French championship, 74-3 in Toulon last Saturday.
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