CHALLENGE CUP FACTS: Previous success doesn't give Gloucester an advantage

rugby22 May 2024 13:20
By:Gavin Rich
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Gloucester try @ getty images

As it is the EPCR’s secondary competition and the teams playing in it are always playing to make it into the Investec Champions Cup, the list of title holders in the Challenge Cup does not run to the multiple sequence of wins that some clubs enjoyed in the higher echelon of European rugby.

An indication of how sporadic success in the competition is comes by way of the fact that if the Hollywoodbets Sharks win the trophy at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Friday night, they will become the 19th team to get a feel of that particular bit of silverware - and it will be at the conclusion of just the 28th edition of the competition.

However, the Sharks’ opponents, Gloucester, have featured as winners before, and are equal with Toulon now when it comes to the number of appearances in the final, with five. They won two of those, beating the French team, Bourgoin, 15-3 in the 2008/2009 final at The Stoop in London, and Edinburgh, again at The Stoop, 19-13 in 2014/2015. They are going for a record equalling third title.

But the experience of winning the trophy won’t give Gloucester any advantage given that it was so long ago and they only have one player currently on their books who was part of that winning effort nine years ago. England wing Jonny May, playing his last season for the team from England’s west country, will be the only survivor from 2015 if he gets to play in Friday’s deciding game.


What Gloucester do have though that the Sharks as a collective won’t have is the experience of tasting cup success relatively recently. The Cherry & Whites, as they are known to their fans, beat Leicester Tigers 23-13 in the Premiership Cup final on their home field of Kingsholm Stadium two months ago.

It is their performances in knock-out competitions rather than their form in the Gallagher Premiership, where they are currently positioned a lowly ninth out of 10 teams, that the Sharks need to be wary of. They do appear to have become specialists in the Cup competitions, possibly reflective of them changing focus relatively early in the Premiership season due to them not being strong contenders for silverware in the league.

Changing focus is something the Sharks will know all about as they started to place emphasis on the Challenge Cup relatively early too, with their poor start to the Vodacom United Rugby Championship making it clear from around December, which is the month the EPCR competitions start, that they were going to struggle to make it into the Champions Cup through the route of finishing in the top eight.

With a rare double on the line, it is understandable that Gloucester have courted criticism in some quarters by going under-strength in their recent Premiership games, with no Gloucester fan needing to be reminded of the ignominy of the record 90-0 defeat to Northampton Saints at Franklin Gardens two weeks ago.

The Sharks too have sustained some hits recently because of their commitment to two competitions, with what had become a strong turnaround in terms of results, six wins in seven games, slipping over the last fortnight due to URC losses to both Benetton and Cardiff.


That last mentioned game though was played by a team that was a mixture of second and third string players, with 20 players flying to London as an advanced guard ahead of the final on the day the Cardiff game was played. The Sharks will be starting the final with their strongest possible team, which will exclude the injured skipper Lukhanyo Am and the Springbok scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse but should include Eben Etzebeth, Vincent Koch and the other World Cup winning Boks.

Talking of Etzebeth and Koch, they are the only two players who have experienced EPCR finals before. Koch did it successfully in two Champions Cup finals when he was with the English club, Saracens, while Etzebeth was part of the Toulon team that was beaten by Lyon in Marseille in 2022.

Gloucester players aside from May who have played in Challenge Cup finals include skipper Lewis Ludlow and Freddie Clarke, who played in the losing effort against Stade Francais at Murrayfield in 2017, while Ruan Ackermann, Fraser Balmain, Val Rapava Ruskin and Ludlow all featured in the 31-30 defeat by Cardiff in the 2018 decider in Bilbao (Spain). 

Other Final notes (Source Challenge Cup)

• There’s an added incentive for Friday evening’s two finalists as the winner will be guaranteed a place in the 2024/25 Investec Champions Cup. Neither Gloucester nor the Sharks can qualify by virtue of their league positions, so whoever lifts the trophy will take the place of the eighth-ranked club in their league in next season’s elite tournament.

• By qualifying for the final at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Gloucester have equalled RC Toulon’s record of five appearances in the tournament’s deciding match.

• If the Hollywoodbets Sharks claim the silverware they will become the first South African club to win an EPCR title.

• Gloucester are two-time tournament winners (2006 and 2015) and they have also experienced the disappointment of defeat in two finals (2017 and 2018). If they triumph at Tottenham, they will join ASM Clermont Auvergne and Harlequins on three wins.

• Gloucester captain, Lewis Ludlow, leads this season’s tournament tackling statistics with 78.

• The Sharks lock Gerbrandt Grobler played for Gloucester between 2018 and 2020 and could end up facing some of his former teammates on Friday evening.

• Gloucester’s highly influential No 8, Zach Mercer, is the tournament’s top carrier to date with 109.