There will be no shortage of motivation for Gloucester to win their third Challenge Cup. In addition to the honour of coming away with a European trophy, every Northampton Saints fan will be hoping for them to lose as they will take their Champions Cup playoff spot.
Stade Francais already have a playoff position wrapped up thanks to finishing seventh on the Top 14 but motivation alone won’t ensure a victory for Gloucester in Friday night’s clash at Murrayfield.
You just need to take a quick look through Stade’s starting XV and it is brimming with some incredible talent – Will Genia, Jules Plisson, Sergio Parisse – and then just look at the front-row, Heinke van der Merwe, Rabah Slimani and Remi Bonfils in the front-row – this is one of the areas which I think Stade will find dominance and ultimately win the game.
Stade are also in the unprecedented position whereby the players do not know where they will be playing next season. The uncertainty surrounding the club after the failed merger with Racing 92 means that many in the match-day 23 on Friday night are playing for contracts.
Since that failed merger, in fact, Stade have had a real upturn in form. They went down to Montpellier last week and could have won the game if it wasn’t for a missed conversion from Morne Steyn. Unfortunately for Gloucester, they are not in good form. They got absolutely smashed two weeks ago against Bath and were then beaten rather comfortably at home to Exeter last week.
Gloucester will need their big players to stand out. Tom Marshall has been fantastic for them this year, so has Johnny May and Billy Burns has done well. Gloucester can be confident that they have put in some big performances against French opposition this year as we saw recently when they beat La Rochelle away in the semi-final and also in the group stages. You have to hope that Gloucester can put in a performance – they’ve beaten some top teams like Saracens and Wasps but on the other hand, they’ve also been so abject at times.
Ultimately, the game will be won and lost up front. Gloucester have big international names like John Afoa and Richard Hibbard who are both stalwarts in this team but then you look at the sheer power of the Stade pack with the likes of Slimani in there. This is where Stade will try to get an advantage. Gloucester do get questioned in this area of the pitch and it could be a long night for the Cheery & Whites if the French side gains dominance up front.
Everyone in Northampton is going to like me because I’m going to go for Stade by five points – their strength up front will be too much for this Gloucester pack.