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European Rugby Challenge Cup: Group stage preview

Like football's Europa League and its relationship with the Champions League, continental rugby union's second-tier competition, the European Rugby Challenge Cup, is often more exciting than its sibling, the Champions Cup. 

It is the 28th edition of the competition under its various guises, with 18 teams from England, France, Italy, Scotland, Wales, South Africa and Georgia battling it out across three pools of six teams. 

Four will qualify from each group and be joined in the last 16 by the four teams who finish fifth in their Champions Cup pools. 

Clermont and Edinburgh kick things off on Friday, with six fixtures on Saturday and a couple more on Sunday.

Exciting Edinburgh can push Clermont close

WhatClermont v Edinburgh
WhereStade Marcel-Michelin, Clermont-Ferrand 
When20:00, Friday 8th December
How to watchViaPlay & Premier Sports

European rugby royalty Clermont, three times runners-up in the Champions Cup and three times winners of this competition, are genuine contenders to lift this trophy on 24th May next year.

Les Jaunards were the impressive 23-18 winners over Racing 92 last Saturday and have won four out of their five home games this season.

Pool 3 visitors Edinburgh, fresh from losing Blair Kinghorn to Toulouse, produced a remarkable performance to beat Ulster 27-24 in Belfast to respond to their home defeat to Benetton.

With another French side, Castres, set to visit the Scottish capital in round two, Edinburgh can afford to play with the handbrake off and throw the ball around.

Clermont will look to pick them off, but on a cold and wet night in Montferrand, there could be errors and the visitors' unpredictability means they might be worth following on the handicap.

Sharks and Pau could play out a classic

WhatSharks v Section Paloise
WhereKings Park, Durban
When15:15, Saturday 9th December
How to watchViaPlay & Premier Sports

There is an early start at 13:00 on Saturday, with Gloucester heading to Tbilisi to face Georgian side Black Lion, who could provide some Pool 1 problems for under-pressure boss George Skivington. 

Zebre host Cheetahs at the same time in Pool 1, while Scarlets visit Castres in Pool 3 at 15:15. 

Pool 2 rivals Ospreys and Benetton meet at 17:30 while the backshift is occupied by Dragons and Oyonnax at 20:00. 

The Welsh side have endured another miserable campaign, but may get some rare joy against their Pool 1 visitors, whose focus might be on retaining their Top 14 place following last season's promotion. 

Saturday's standout game could come from Kings Park, with the Top 14's surprise package, Section Paloise, heading to Sharks at 14:15. 

Section Paloise, Pau to more casual observers, sit fourth in the French top division after winning six of their nine games and will relish their trip to Durban to face a Sharks side sweating following their 44-10 defeat to Bulls, with the pressure on coach John Plumtree. 

Like South Africa's other URC teams, Sharks are poor on the road but are a better side at home and could edge Pau.

Either way, with 55 and 83 points being tallied in the Durbanites' last two games, the points could flow in this Pool 1 clash.

Falcons look for European respite

WhatNewcastle v Montpellier
WhereKingston Park, Newcastle
When15:15, Sunday 10th December
How to watchViaPlay & Premier Sports

Finally, to Sunday and Perpignan, who have lost three out of their last five and host Lions at 13:00 in Pool 3. The devil is in the detail for Franck Azema's side though, with their two wins during that run both coming at the Stade Aime Giral. 

It may have been renovated over the years, but the ground remains a bearpit for away sides, with the home fans on top of the visiting players and it would be a shock to see the Lions get anything from the game - with their sole away victory this season coming from a late show against the Scarlets. 

Then at 16:15, Newcastle will seek some salvation in European competition after a miserable start in the Premiership. New coach Alex Codling looked visibly upset after his team last for the eighth time in as many games against Leicester on Sunday. 

Rumours and negative publicity are swirling around the club, but with a trip to South Africa against the Lions next weekend, this is a chance to play with freedom against Pool 2 rivals Montpellier side, who themselves have only won once all season and traditionally struggle on the road.

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