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Friday, 19 October, 2018

Quins and Connacht could steal a march on big guns

French favourites need to prove their commitment

Harlequins put in a determined performance against Saracens at the weekend
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French clubs have had something of a love-hate relationship with the Challenge Cup over the years, and this year there's an unusual scenario in which the two teams setting the pace in the Top 14 line up in European rugby's second-tier competition.

Clermont are top of the table in France while Stade Francais are second, but last season both missed out on the top-six finish required to get them into the Champions Cup.

Both have won the Challenge Cup, Stade as recently as 2017, so there's no reason to totally dismiss their level of commitment to the competition.


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But given the challenge they will face to keep up their fast start in domestic competition, there seems a good chance their focus will waver and both face strong competition in their pools. Last season Toulouse looked out of place in the lower level and were second-favourites but failed to get out of their pool.

Clermont are favourites while La Rochelle, who impressed on their European bow last term, are next in the betting, but better value may lie overseas.

Best bet
Harlequins 11-1

After a poor Champions Cup campaign last season in which they won just one pool match, Quins are back in a tournament where they have enjoyed some success as winners in 2011 and runners-up in 2016.

Results have been mixed in this campaign, but in their last two outings they have shown the kind of steel new coach Paul Gustard was expected to bring, beating Gloucester away and pushing Saracens all the way at home.

They are blessed with a kind draw, alongside Top 14 strugglers Agen and Grenoble plus Italian outfit Benetton, who are improving fast but may take their foot off the gas in Europe.

Next best
Connacht 20-1

So often in the shadow of the other Irish provinces, Connacht have claimed some notable scalps in their occasional Champions Cup tilts and, like Quins, they have been offered a fairly modest set of pool rivals.

Promoted Perpignan are winless and bottom of the Top 14 so they are likely to put Europe at the bottom of their list, while Sale and Bordeaux can be dangerous but are also struggling a little in their leagues.

The Sportsground in Galway has a reputation as an inhospitable venue and Connacht have proved themselves to be fully committed having reached the knockout stage the last three times they have lined up.

Others to note

French trio Clermont, Stade Francais and La Rochelle occupy three of the four slots at the head of the betting, but apart from questions over their commitment, they also face tough pools.

Northampton are alongside Clermont in Pool One, and while the French side look a cut above the Saints they can certainly push hard for seeding points, while Stade come up against the Ospreys, who should prove equally resolute.

La Rochelle should have an easier route, but they have more to prove in the Top 14 as they languish in the bottom half of the table.

Recommendations
Harlequins
2pts each-way 11-1 Betfair, Paddy Power
Connacht
1pt each-way 20-1 Coral, Ladbrokes, Sky Bet


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Given the challenge they will face to keep up their fast start in domestic competition, there seems a good chance their focus will waver
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