Rugby Union European Challenge Cup

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  • History
  • Current Format
  • Qualification
  • Records
  • Further Reading

The Challenge Cup is the sports second tier contest for European club sides, ranking behind the Heineken Cup is terms of prestige. In footballing terms, the Challenge Cup is equivalent of the Europa League. Nevertheless, it’s a hard fought contest offering a great chance for clubs from England, France, Wales, Ireland, Italy, Romania, Spain and Italy.

In this guide we’ll run you through all you need to know about this rugby union competition.


The competition started alongside the Heineken Cup in 1995. It was originally called the European Conference and featured 24 teams split into four groups of six. The year after the competition was renamed the European Shield and was expanded to include 32 teams split into eight groups of four.

In 1999 the format changed again. Due to the absence of English and Scottish clubs there were just 21 teams involved, playing in three groups of seven. This was also the first year the teams from Spain and Portugal took part.

The return of English and Scottish clubs changed the format again and the following year 28 teams took part playing in seven groups of four. In 2002 the field was expanded again to eight groups of four and in 2002/3 there was a significant change with the group stage being dropped completely in favour of a straight knock out set up involving 32 teams playing in six rounds (including the final).

In 2006/6 things changed back to old format of a group stage followed by knock out rounds. Aside from the introduction of ‘parachuted teams’ in the knock out round, this was the start of the contests current format.

Current Format

Each year twenty teams take part in the tournament. They are spilt into five groups of four for the initial stage of the contest. In each group all the teams play each other twice taking it in turns to host each other.

After each game, four points are awarded for a win, two each for a draw and none for a loss. However, there are also bonus points on offer. If a team scores four tries or more they get an extra point regardless of a result. Losing teams will also get an additional point if they are within seven points of the victors. This ensures there is always something to play for at all stages of a match up.

Once all the teams have played each other twice the five teams that manage to come out on top of their mini leagues go through to the quarter finals. (If two sides end joint top then the points earned from their matches against each other is used to determine who goes through. If this is even, it goes to tries scored, then points scored.) All the other sides from the group stage are eliminated. The numbers are made up by three sides ‘parachuting’ in from the Heineken Cup (in a similar way that sides eliminated from the Champions League can compete in the Europa League in football). These will be 3rd, 4th and 5th best runners up from the group stages of the bigger competition.

Form here teams are drawn against each other at random. The venue for each quarter final is decided by the pot each team is drawn from. The four best group winners go into one pot, whilst the fifth best and the parachuted sides from the Heineken Cup go in the other. Sides from the first pot are drawn against sides from the second, the first sides playing at home.

In the semi final draw the home advantage is decided purely by which team is first out of the hat. Previously, teams who’d been in the tournament from the start were always at home if playing a parachuted team but this was abandoned in the 2010-2011. The final is held in a different neutral venue each year.

In the knockout stage, if a match ends in a tie, then an additional twenty minutes is played. If the scores are still level after that the outcome is determined by which side has scored more tries. If this is level then the game is decided by a place kick competition.


All the teams from the top division in France, England and the Pro12 sides are entered into the Challenge Cup if they are not playing in the Heineken Cup. The top four sides from Italy are included and Wales, Ireland, Romania and Spain/Portugal all contribute one side each. There are no Scottish sides as they all go into the Heineken Cup (though they can parachute down).


  • England’s Harlequins are the most successful side in the history of the tournament, having won it three times. They have a perfect record in finals.
  • Frenchman Ludovic Mercier is the leading scorer in the competition with 520 points put up over the course of his career.
  • At present four players are tied as the all time leading try scorer. Jean Victor Bertrand, Richard Haughton, Sebatien Kuzbik and James Simpson-Dnaiel have all crossed the line 19 times.
  • England are the most successful country in the competition. English clubs have won it nine times. France is second with six. Indeed, the cup has only been won by clubs from outside these two rival nations on a couple of occasions. In 2010 the Cardiff Blues brought the trophy back to Wales, and the current champions are Leinster, the first Irish side to bag the honour.
  • For the decade running from 2001 – 2011 there was an English side in the final every single year bar one.
  • Before this France dominated the contest. From 1997-2000 all eight teams to reach the final hailed from across the channel.
  • No team has ever retained the trophy. This is partly because, winning it grants qualification for next season’s Heineken Cup. Therefore, to successfully defend the title a team would have to end up, as one of the 5th-7th placed runners up in the group stage – not something that you would (or even could) do on purpose.
  • In total 2,858 points have been scored in this year’s competition so far.
  • Castres, Toulon and Stade Francais share the worst record in finals. They’ve all reached the final twice and lost both times. Indeed, from 2010-2013, Toulon and Stade Francais took it in turns to lose alternating finals.
  • By a huge margin, the highest attendance for a Challenge Cup game was the 2010 final between Cardiff Blues and Toulon. 49,000 fans flocked to Marseille’s Stade Vellodrome to see the action.

Further Reading


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