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Connacht And Ulster Handed French Tests In Challenge Cup

Connacht And Ulster Handed French Tests In Challenge Cup

The battle to be crowned EPCR Challenge Cup champions will intensify when the knockout rounds begin in early April ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Connacht and Ulster will both face French opposition in the EPCR Challenge Cup round of 16, travelling to Pau and Montpellier respectively over the weekend of April 5/6/7.

There were fifth place finishes for both provinces in their respective Investec Champions Cup pools, with Connacht’s hopes – raised by Friday night’s impressive 27-10 dismissal of Bristol Bears – ended by Saracens’ subsequent 39-24 victory over Lyon.

Ulster, meanwhile, bowed out of the Champions Cup in disappointing fashion with a 47-19 defeat away to Harlequins. Ireland Six Nations squad members, Stuart McCloskey and Jacob Stockdale, both touched down late on, adding to David McCann’s first half try.

It is a second heavy loss for Dan McFarland’s men, coming on the back of a chastening home outing against Toulouse whose seven-try tally was matched by ‘Quins. They now enter the Challenge Cup for only the second time in their history.

Ulster’s previous involvement in the tournament was in the 2020/21 season when they overcame both Harlequins (57-21) and Northampton Saints (35-27) on English soil, before falling short against Leicester Tigers (33-24) at the semi-final stage.

Montpellier, that year’s Challenge Cup winners, will be their round of 16 hosts the week after Easter, with captain Iain Henderson saying: “Obviously things didn’t go the way we planned, and I think a lot of it was down to us. Down to our mistakes and not taking our opportunities.

“A lot of our errors allowing Harlequins to take their opportunities. Some of it is individual errors, some of it is guys potentially backing up other people’s errors and probably trying to play a way that we shouldn’t be playing.

“I think there will be an overall look at how we manage the game, that’s the bigger picture, but individually, (it’s) a lot more onus on our individual mistakes.”

He added: “I’ve been at Ulster for 12 seasons now and no silverware. (Playing in the Challenge Cup) is a chance for silverware irrespective of it being in the second tier competition. Every season, silverware has always been our goal.

“I know that is a bit rich coming after an absolute drubbing over the last couple of weeks, but you see we can pull it together and beat big teams, so it is about us trying to find some form to ensure that we can put ourselves in the best position to do that.”

Meanwhile, Connacht have a long history with the Challenge Cup, reaching the semi-finals in 2004, 2005, and 2010. They bowed out in the round of 16 in both 2021 and 2023, losing to Leicester Tigers (48-32) and Benetton Rugby (41-19) respectively.

Pete Wilkins’ charges picked up their second victory of the New Year when entertaining Bristol. They hit the front through Shayne Bolton before capitalising on Josh Caulfield’s sending-off, with Jack Aungier, captain Caolin Blade, and player-of-the-match Andrew Smith also crossing the whitewash.

Smith, who was unfortunate to have an acrobatically-finished try ruled out, David Hawkshaw, whose strong defence saved two certain tries, and smart lineout operator Niall Murray were some of the westerners’ leading lights on the night.

Head coach Wilkins eased fears about the fitness of Ireland duo Bundee Aki and Finlay Bealham, explaining: “Bundee had a collision onto his knee so there wasn’t anything structural there. It was pretty sore, you could see that in the way he was moving but there was no issue with him battling through.

“Finlay, obviously from that boot to the face (in the red card incident), he had a bit of interference with his vision from that. But we took him off at half-time, more so as a precaution in case there was any significant damage done.

“Hopefully they’ll both be fighting fit and we wish them well going into Ireland camp and the Six Nations to come.”

He added: “As a team we are ambitious and we always strive for that. I’m pleased we are still in Europe. Although we had three losses to start the European campaign this year, we were able to build each time and we learned something from it.

“We were all really aware of how important today was in terms of the announcement (of new sponsors Dexcom and the stadium renaming) and the excitement around that.

“We talk about fresh chapters. Again this is another important building block in that. We knew we would have a terrific crowd here supporting us. I think it was appropriate that we not just capped it with a win but with a really sound performance as well.”

Connacht will travel to play Pau for the first time since the 2003/04 tournament when they won a two-legged second round affair, triumphing 29-7 at home before losing the away fixture (10-6). John Muldoon and Tim Allnutt, two members of the current management team, were part of the squad back then.


– Seeding number in brackets

R16 1: Hollywoodbets Sharks (1) v Zebre Parma (16)

R16 2: Gloucester (2) v Castres Olympique (15)

R16 3: Benetton Rugby (3) v Emirates Lions (14)

R16 4: Clermont Auvergne (4) v Toyota Cheetahs (13)

R16 5: Montpellier (5) v ULSTER (12)

R16 6: Pau (6) v CONNACHT (11)

R16 7: Ospreys (7) v Sale Sharks (10)

R16 8: Edinburgh (8) v Bayonne (9)


– The quarter-finals (April 12/13/14) will be played over one match and the highest-ranked teams from the pool stages will have home venue advantage

QF 1: Winner R16 1 (Hollywoodbets Sharks (1)/Zebre Parma (16)) v Winner R16 8 (Edinburgh (8)/Bayonne (9))

QF 2: Winner R16 2 (Gloucester (2)/Castres Olympique (15)) v Winner R16 7 (Ospreys (7)/Sale Sharks (10))

QF 3: Winner R16 3 (Benetton Rugby (3)/Emirates Lions (14)) v Winner R16 6 (Pau (6)/CONNACHT (11))

QF 4: Winner R16 4 (Clermont Auvergne (4)/Toyota Cheetahs (13)) v Winner R16 5 (Montpellier (5)/ULSTER (12))


– The semi-finals (May 3/4/5) will be played in Europe and the highest-ranked teams from the pool stages will have home country advantage

SF 1: Winner QF 1 v Winner QF 4

SF 2: Winner QF 2 v Winner QF 3


The 2024 final will be played at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London on Friday, May 24. Click here for ticket information.

NB: In the event of drawn matches at the end of normal time during the knockout stages, extra-time will be played. If the scores remain tied at the end of extra-time, the winner will be determined as follows:

(a) the team that has scored the most tries in the match (including extra-time) or
(b) if equal, by a place kick competition