Preview: Gloucester v Stade Français
CHALLENGE CUP FINAL: Both Gloucester and Stade Français will try to take the edge off disappointing league seasons when they meet in the European Challenge Cup final at Murrayfield on Friday.
Gloucester finished ninth in the 12-team Premiership and won just seven out of 22 league games. Meanwhile, Stade's very existence was under threat this season until a proposed merger with Paris rivals Racing 92, which resulted in a disruptive players' strike, fell through.
Stade subsequently failed to qualify for the Top 14 play-offs, having been crowned champions of France two seasons ago.
So while lifting European rugby union's second-tier trophy will be welcome, victory in Edinburgh won't mask the underlying issues at either club.
"We are not where we want to be in the league. It is just as frustrating for us as it is for people watching. We beat La Rochelle away in the Challenge Cup semi-finals - they were undefeated at home this season - then not to back it up against Bath in the league the following week was disappointing," Gloucester hooker Richard Hibbard said.
Stade has won all three previous meetings with Gloucester, who are looking for a third Challenge Cup triumph after winning their two previous finals against London Irish (2006) and Edinburgh (2015).
By contrast, Stade will be looking for their first major continental trophy after losing two European Cup finals and two Challenge Cup finals. They are now up against a Gloucester team who have won 10 of their last 11 games against Top 14 opposition in the Challenge Cup.
Stade saw their slim hopes of a Top 14 playoff spot disappear on Wednesday when French rugby bosses rejected an appeal against Montpellier for fielding an ineligible player. Had Stade's appeal succeeded, they might have been awarded victory in last weekend's 26-27 loss to Montpellier and thus leapfrogged Racing into the final playoff berth.
The French Rugby League (LNR) also handed Stade lock Pascal Pape a three-week ban for his red card in their 27-23 win over Racing 10 days ago, that ruled the experienced second row out of Friday's final.
But Stade, who beat Bath in the semi-finals, can still call upon the likes of France's Jules Plisson and South Africa's Morne Steyn
"Stade are a good team. There are some world-class players there, and if you give them a sniff of space, they are going to take it," Hibbard added.
Friday's match gives Gloucester scrumhalf and Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw - a recent call-up to the British and Irish Lions - a chance to end his Cherry and Whites career with a trophy at a venue he knows well from numerous Test appearances before he joins French giants Clermont next season.
"It is always good to finish the season with some silverware. The season has been up and down, and it is about giving something back to the fans," he stated.
Former Stade star Christophe Dominici, the now retired France wing, is among a group of ex-players who have made a bid to buy the club.
"Everything is ready on the sports side," explained Dominici, adding his group could put together "a very beautiful team" for next season.
2005: Stade Français won 27-0, Paris
2004: Stade Français won 39-31, Gloucester
1998: Stade Français won 53-22, Gloucester
Prediction: This will be the fourth match between the clubs. Stade Français have won all three previous meetings, two European Cup pool stage games in 2004/05 and a Challenge Cup quarter-final in 1998. Gloucester is appearing in the Challenge Cup final for the third time, and are also looking for a third title having won their two previous appearances (2006 and 2015). This will be Stade's fifth European final but they are still striving for their first trophy, losing two European Cup finals (2001 and 2005) and two Challenge Cup finals (2011 and 2013). The Cherry and Whites have won 10 of their last 11 games against Top 14 opposition in the Challenge Cup, their only loss in the run coming against La Rochelle in Round Four this season. This will be the eighth Anglo-French final in the Challenge Cup, with Premiership clubs winning five of the previous seven. Gloucester has averaged just 10.5 turnovers conceded per game this season, the fewest of any side in 2016/17. Jules Plisson's drop goal in the semi-final, which secured Stade's passage to Murrayfield, was just the fourth successful drop goal in this season's tournament. Teammate Morné Steyn also slotted one earlier in the campaign (as did Angus O'Brien of the Newport Gwent Dragons and Gareth Anscombe for the Cardiff Blues.) All four players who have played in both of Stade's previous two Challenge Cup finals have featured for the Top 14 side this season (Julien Arias, Julien Dupuy, Remy Bonfils, and captain, Sergio Parisse). Arias also played in the European Cup final defeat in 2005. Billy Burns (7) and Billy Twelvetrees (6) have made the most and second most try assists respectively this season. Sergio Parisse (3) has the most for Stade. No player has made more tackles than Gloucester's Tom Savage this season (73/84), however, as a team, Stade Français have averaged more per game than any other side (133). We suspect that Gloucester will bag their first victory over Stade by about six points.
Gloucester: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Charlie Sharples, 13 Matt Scott, 12 Mark Atkinson, 11 Jonny May, 10 Billy Burns, 9 Willi Heinz (captain), 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Lewis Ludlow, 6 Ross Moriarty, 5 Jeremy Thrush, 4 Tom Savage, 3 John Afoa, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Josh Hohneck.
Replacements: 16 Darren Dawidiuk, 17 Yann Thomas, 18 Paddy McAllister, 19 Mariano Galarza, 20 Freddie Clarke, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Billy Twelvetrees, 23 Henry Trinder.
Stade Français: 15 Hugo Bonneval, 14 Waisea Vuidarvuwalu, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Djibril Camara, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Will Genia, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Jonathan Ross, 6 Antoine Burban, 5 Paul Gabrillagues, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Remi Bonfils, 1 Heinke van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Laurent Panis, 17 Zurabi Zhvania, 18 Paul Alo Emile, 19 Willem Alberts, 20 Raphael Lakafia, 21 Julien Dupuy, 22 Morné Steyn, 23 Jérémy Sinzelle.
Date: Friday, May 12
Kick-off: 18.00 (19.00 GMT)
Expected weather: A lovely Scottish summer's day is expected with overhead clouds and a high of 10°C
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Andrew Brace (Ireland), Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)