The European Challenge Cup in rugby union, known as the Parker Pen Shield from 2001 to 2003 and Parker Pen Challenge Cup from 2003 to 2005, is the junior competition to the Heineken Cup. It is competed for by teams from England, France, Wales, Ireland, Italy, Romania, and on some occasions, Spain and Portugal, on a pool, and then knock-out, basis. Since the demise of the third professional side in Scotland, Scotland are no longer represented. The current holders are English club Bath, who defeated Worcester 24-16 in 2008.
European club rugby began with the launch of the Heineken Cup in the summer of 1995
The Challenge Cup began as the 'European Conference' (later renamed the European Shield) in 1996 with twenty-four teams from England, France, Italy, Romania, Scotland and Wales divided into four groups of six. All seven of the French teams made it to the quarter-finals with English club Northampton Saints filling the other berth. Predictably, the final was an all-French affair with Bourgoin beating Castres Olympique 18-9 to win the shield.
The following year's competition had an increased entry with eight groups of four teams. Colomiers continued the French dominance of the European Shield, defeating Agen 43-5 in the final.
The absence of English and Scottish clubs in 1998/99 saw the competition reduced to twenty-one teams divided into three groups of seven teams with the Spanish and Portuguese national teams taking part. Once again, a French team was triumphant, with Montferrand beating holders Bourgoin 35-16 in the final held in Lyon.
With English and Scottish clubs back in the competition in 1999, there were 28 teams split in seven groups of four and London Irish and Bristol reached the semi-finals of the competition, but couldn't prevent another all-French final with Pau crowned champions after a 34-21 defeat of Castres.
In 2000 for once there was no change in format, but the competition was without any teams from Romania. The semi-final draw was an all-English and all-French affair to leave NEC Harlequins and Narbonne contesting the first final on English soil. NEC Harlequins ended French dominance of the European Shield, defeating RC Narbonne 27-26 after extra time in the final.
There was a new sponsor and a name change in 2001. The new 'Parker pen shield' saw thirty-two teams divided into eight groups of four competing for the title. For the first time there were two Spanish club teams and Romania was represented. Only one French club reached the quarter-finals along with five English and two from Wales and for the first time no French club reached the semi-finals after Pau lost to London Irish. For the first time a Welsh team, Pontypridd made it to the final but Sale Sharks emerged victorious, coming from behind to win 25-22 at the Kassam Stadium in Oxford.
The league format was abandoned in 2002 and the tournament became a knock-out competition. This involved 32 clubs from eight nations, half of them seeded and drawn against an un-seeded team on a home and away basis. The name 'Parker Pen Shield' was now applied to a reprechage knock-out tournament for those teams that did not qualify for the second round of the Challenge Cup. The Parker Pen Challenge Cup winner now automatically qualified for the Heineken Cup. London Wasps beat Bath Rugby 48-30 to win the renamed 'Parker Pen Challenge Cup' by twenty points at the Madejski Stadium, Reading.
In 2003/4 the Welsh Rugby Union voted to create regions to play in the Celtic League and represent Wales in European competition. Henceforce Wales entered regional sides rather than the club sides which had previously competed. With a reduction from nine professional clubs to just five, there was no Welsh entry in that year's competition. Romania also did not take part in the Challenge Cup. NEC Harlequins won the cup with a 27-26 last-second victory over Montferrand at the Madejski Stadium to become the first side to win the tournament twice.
Sale eased to victory in the 2005 final 27-3 over a disappointing Pau side. In 2006, the tournament witnessed its closest final to date, when Gloucester Rugby edged out London Irish 36-34 after extra time.
The Parker Pen Shield was abandoned in 2005 due to restructuring of the European Challenge Cup. The competition reverted back to being a league format followed by knock-out phase with five pools of four teams and home and away matches. Romanian interest returned to the competition in the form of Bucureşti Rugby who had been formed to represent Romania in European competition, however there was no representation from Spain or Portugal.
The European Challenge Cup is, generally speaking, the equivalent competition of the UEFA Cup in professional football, whereas the Heineken Cup in the equivalent to the higher level UEFA Champions League.
England, France, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland set their own criteria for qualification for the Heineken Cup. All the clubs that do not qualify for the Heineken Cup enter the European Challenge Cup. Italy enters 4 clubs: those finishing 3rd and 4th in the Super 10, and the winners of play-offs between 5th and 8th, and 6th and 7th. Romania is represented by Bucureşti Rugby who are specially formed for this competition.
There are five pools of four teams who play each other home and away matches. The winners of each pool and the three best runners up will qualify for the quarter-finals. The semi-finals will be one-off matches played at home venues and the final at a neutral venue.
The Semi finals were played on the weekend of 21/22 April 2007:
|Bourgoin||18-9||Castres||Stade de la Méditerranée, Béziers||10,000|
|Colomiers||43-5||Agen||Stade des Sept Deniers, Toulouse||12,500|
|Montferrand||35-16||Bourgoin||Stade de Gerland, Lyon||31,986|
|Pau||34-21||Castres||Stade des Sept Deniers, Toulouse||6,000|
|NEC Harlequins||42-33||Narbonne||Madejski Stadium, Reading||10,013|
|Sale||25-22||Pontypridd||Kassam Stadium, Oxford||12,000|
|London Wasps||48-30||Bath||Madejski Stadium, Reading||18,074|
|NEC Harlequins||27-26||Montferrand||Madejski Stadium, Reading||13,123|
|Sale||27-3||Pau||Kassam Stadium, Oxford||7,230|
|London Irish||The Stoop, London||12,053|
|Clermont Auvergne||22-16||Bath Rugby||The Stoop, London||10,134|
|Bath Rugby||24-16||Worcester Warriors||Kingsholm Stadium, Gloucester||16,157|
|Times won||Times runners-up|
|ASM Clermont Auvergne||Top 14||2||1|
|NEC Harlequins||Guinness Premiership||2||0|
|Sale Sharks||Guinness Premiership||2||0|
|London Wasps||Guinness Premiership||1||0|
|Gloucester Rugby||Guinness Premiership||1||0|
|London Irish||Guinness Premiership||0||1|
|Pontypridd||Welsh Premier Division||0||1|
|Worcester Warriors||Guinness Premiership||0||1|