New challenges for Timisoara Saracens in the 2018/19 ER Challenge Cup

 

22.06.2018

As a result of the pool draw, held at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland on Wednesday, June 20th 2018, Timisoara Saracens joined Northampton Saints, ASM Clermont Auvergne and Dragons Rugby in Pool 1 of the 2018/19 Challenge Cup European championship

 

 

Northampton Saints, the English Premiership Rugby team, have ranked 9th in their table last season. The club was founded in 1880 by a sports passionate vicar, which ultimately gave its “Saints” name. After almost 140 years of tradition in rugby, the modern era club proudly displays the contribution of more than 100 international players who have made or are making their mark in Northampton. Most of these players represented England and British & Irish Lions, but the club was and is home of internationals from all over the place: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy and even Samoa, Fiji, Tonga. Amongst the 2018/19 confirmed squad, one can easily spot internationals such as hooker Dylan Hartley (club captain and England captain), fullback Francis Piers (England) second row Api Ratuniyarawa (Fiji), prop Paul Hill (England), Ken Pisi (Samoa), as well as new additions such as Wales fly-half Dan Biggar, England flanker James Haskell and former All Blacks prop Ben Franks.

 

The Premiership champions of the 2013/14 season (Final won against Saracens by 24-20) had already shelved one Heineken Champions Cup in 2000 and one Challenge Cup in 2009 (won against the French side Burgoin), before squeezing in a second Challenge Cup in 2014, following their win against Bath Rugby, one week after they had been crowned England’s champions. Starting from the 2018/19 season, Northampton Saints will be directed by kiwi coach Chris Boyd, who makes his move to the Northern Hemisphere from Super Rugby franchise Hurricanes.

Franklin’s Gardens Stadium is the home of Northampton Saints. Purchased by the club in 1977, the stadium has been continuously modernised since 2001, reaching today a capacity of 15.249 places.

 

ASM Clermont Auvergne, the French club that currently competes in TOP 14, have also ranked 9th in their league table at the end of the last season. However, ASM Clermont Auvergne have won TOP 14 two times (in 2009 and 2017) and are three times vice-champions of Europe. They’ve lost two Heineken Champions Cup Finals to RC Toulon (in 2013 and 2015) and one to Saracens in 2017, when Sarries were crowned back-to-back European champions. The same as Northampton Saints, ASM Clermont Auvergne have managed to gather more silverware: the first time in 1999, as they defeated Burgoin in the Challenge Cup Final and the second time in 2007, as they won over Bath Rugby, on Twickenham Stoop the 2006/07 Challenge Cup.

 

The stadium on which ASM Clermont Auvergne host their matches is named “Marcel-Michelin”, after the son of the founder of the famous French tyre manufacturer. He had decided to implement the stadium, after the creation of the sports club AS Montferrand for the factory workers, before the World War I (in 1911). The stadium also known as the Bib Park can today host 19022 people, while the supporters’ club, the Yellow Army, is well known for the show they put on from the stands.

 

Amongst the international players of the French side, one can spot club captain Damien Chouly (No. 8, France), prop Rabah Slimani (France), scrum-halves Morgan Parra (France) and Greig Laidlaw (Scotland), centre Wesley Fofana (France), prop Davit Zirakashvili (Georgia), flanker Viktor Koleishvili (Georgia) and lock Flip van der Merwe (South Africa). English international David Strettle wore the blue-yellow jersey for three seasons, before returning, as of this season, on Saracens’ Allianz Park. The team is run by Franck Azéma, who has been Clermont’s Head Coach since 2014.

 

As a club, Dragons Rugby is the “youngest” opponent Timisoara Saracens will face in this season’s Challenge Cup pool stage. Founded in 2003 by the Welsh Rugby Union, the Welsh side has travelled twice before to Romania for the Challenge Cup pools.

 

The first time was in the 2006/07 season of the Amlin Cup when they ranked first, also in Pool 1, along side Bristol, Bayonne and Bucharest Wolves. The first match against Bucharest Wolves was played on December 8th 2006 in Wales and it ended 66-10 in favour of the hosts. The return match was played on December 16th 2006 week on Steaua Stadium and Dragons won once more, but by a 10 points margin (Wolves 29 – 39 Dragons). From today’s Timisoara Saracens players, only Catalin Fercu was part of the Bucharest Wolves, but at the time he was not Timisoara’s player. Dragons have climbed up that season to the play-off stage, but they were eliminated by ASM Clermont Auvergne in the semi-final.

 

The second trip of the Dragons to Romania was in the 2014/15 season of the Challenge Cup. In the first match scheduled on December 6th 2014 in Bucharest, the Wolves were defeated 10-37 on Ghencea Stadium, then one week later the Dragons won again in Wales, by 69-17. Luke Samoa is the only current Timisoara Saracens player that was part of the Bucharest Wolves squad that season, but at the time he wasn’t yet a Timisoara player. Dragons moved on again that season to the play-off stages, to be defeated by Edinburgh Rugby in the semi-final and history repeated the following season when Dragons were eliminated by Montpellier in the semi.

From 2003 until 2011, Dragons competed seven seasons in a row in the Heineken Champions Cup and the highest rank they have ever reached in their domestic league was 3rd, at the end of the 2003/04 season.

 

Since 2017, the former Ireland international Bernard Jackman is Head Coach of Dragons Rugby and this season’s confirmed squad includes international players such as club captain Cory Hill (lock, Wales), Ross Moriarty (No.8, Wales), Elliott Dee (hooker, Wales), Hallam Amos (fullback, Wales), Richard Hibbard (flanker, Wales and British & Irish Lions), Tyler Morgan (centre, Wales). Wales prop Aaron Jarvis will make his debut this season in the Dragons jersey, freshly signed from ASM Clermont Auvergne.

Rodney Parade from Newport is the home of the Dragons, the stadium becoming Welsh Rugby Union property since last year, with a current capacity of 8700 seats. The grass will be replaced with hybrid by the beginning of the current season, as the pitch is shared with the football club Newport County AFC.

 

 

Bearing in mind the history of the opponents Romania’s champions will face in October, December and January, Vasile Rus, Timisoara Saracens’ captain stated:

“We are honoured by the opportunity of competing in the 2018/19 season of the Challenge Cup and as a team we will try and make the best of it. We are competing in this championship for the second time and, after seeing the results of the pool draw, clearly we will have a difficult task, as all three teams of our pool are extremely competitive and physical. It is obvious to us that all three teams will try to obtain as many points as possible out of their matches against us. We haven’t met them before, but for us this is the real challenge. We had a similarly competitive pool in the 2016/17 season, with teams which were favourites for the title, which, in fact was won by Stade Francais. I think it is the same this season, as the teams in our pool have the Heineken Champions Cup experience as well, but I believe this will be a great opportunity for us to apply the conclusions drawn after our first participation. We could say that we now know the level and the intensity on which matches are played, we know that we have to be very well prepared, physically, as well as mentally. In the end, we have nothing to lose, but only to gain, competing in the European championship being a perfect occasion for us to evolve and develop as a group, as a team and to improve our performance. This is what we wished for, we are working to evolve and develop, we are aware that we not only represent Timisoara, but the whole of Romania, in this competition and I hope we will have the support of all Romanians in the upcoming matches."

 

The exact dates and order of the pool matches will be announced later this summer, two weeks after the announcement of the final fixture lists from the European professional domestic leagues.  

 
 
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