TOP BAR - Fixtures

Matt Banahan relishing prospect of third Challenge Cup final appearance

Bath Rugby winger Matt Banahan has set his sights on reaching a third European Challenge Cup final as he prepares for a semi-final clash against Stade Francais in Paris on Sunday.

Banahan won the competition as a 21-year-old in 2008 when Bath defeated fellow Aviva Premiership Rugby side Worcester Warriors, but they missed out against Northampton Saints in 2014.

Todd Blackadder’s side are recovering from a frustrating 25-19 defeat at Worcester last weekend that put a dent in their semi-final ambitions, despite Banahan being among the try-scorers, but victory at the Stade Jean-Bouin would make for an exciting end to the season.

If Bath can produce a repeat of their quarter-final performance against Brive, where they scored five tries in a 34-20 victory, then they’ll certainly pose a threat.

“Obviously we’ve got an opportunity to go up against a good Stade Francais team and hopefully get us a result that books us a trip up to Scotland for the final,” he said.

“In European rugby, the French fans get right behind their team, so you’re not only competing against 15 players on the pitch, you’re competing against a lot of fans who are going to make a lot of noise at the start of the game.

“It’s going to be an interesting game and hopefully we’ll come out on top against what is a very passionate side, obviously led by Sergio Parisse.”

Stade Francais were recently a club in crisis, sinking towards the lower end of the French Top 14, but since a shock merger with Parisian rivals Racing 92 was aborted they’ve been a team reborn.

In the month that’s followed, they’ve won four matches in a row in all competitions, including their quarter-final victory over the Ospreys, and are now up to sixth in the table.

Banahan said: “With all the stuff that’s gone on, they’ve come out as a passionate bunch of players and they’ve been playing some really good rugby since that whole story came out.

“They’re good players, you can’t take them for granted and they’re full of internationals and ex-internationals, so we that we’re going to have our hands full, but we’ve got to go out there and try and take it to them.

“When you hear of two clubs merging, you think there’s always going to be one club that’s going to lose its trademark, but obviously it didn’t happen and their players made it clear that they wanted to play for Stade Francais.

“They’re one of the in-form sides in Europe at the moment.”

Following their trip across the Channel, Bath welcome local rivals Gloucester Rugby to the Rec in the Aviva Premiership and that might not be the only time the two sides clash for the remainder of the season.

With the Cherry and Whites due to face La Rochelle in the other semi on Saturday evening, there’s the possibility of an all-West Country final taking place at Murrayfield next month.

He said: “We both play our semi-finals then we face each other a week later, so it could be, in theory, a final before a final, but we’re going to take one game at a time, get through our semi-final and not think any further than that at the moment.

“There’s a lot to play for in this game and you could lose it all very quickly.”

Tickets to the Aviva Premiership Rugby Final is on 27 May at Twickenham are now on sale. If you want to have an unforgettable day out at club rugby’s best Cup Final then click here for tickets.

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