Gloucester Rugby may well have a target on their backs in the European Rugby Challenge Cup this year, but skipper Billy Twelvetrees insists they will set out to win six out of six games in the pool stages.
The Cherry & Whites lifted the Challenge Cup trophy in style last season, beating Edinburgh 19-13 in the final at the Twickenham Stoop to become the first ever champions of the newly-formatted competition.
Twelvetrees scored the decisive try in that final, lifting Gloucester’s first European trophy in nine years in his debut season as captain.
And despite the side missing out on qualification for the Champions Cup – after losing out to a last-minute drop-goal in their play-off with Bordeaux-Begles – the 26-year-old England international is adamant the squad are already champing at the bit at the prospect of defending their title.
“The boys are really excited, and to try and defend this trophy is a huge focus for us,” he said. “We all really enjoyed lifting it last year, and we really used that momentum going back into domestic matters as well.
“To be involved again this year is hugely exciting, and while we don’t want to look any further ahead than the pool stages, what worked for us last year was winning six out of six in the pool.
“That gave us a home quarter-final and then a home semi-final, and really gave us the momentum to push on and win the final.
“It’s always a different feeling when you’re going into a European week. You get excited about it, and around the crowd and in the grounds it is a different atmosphere.
“It was really nice getting to the knockout stages last year and it would be amazing to get there again and lift the trophy.
“Every young rugby player has watched Europe growing up and seen the legends that have played in the competition and lifted the trophy, and you definitely want to be part of that.”
Gloucester face French side La Rochelle and newly-promoted Worcester Warriors in the pool stages of the competition, as well as Zebre from Italy.
And with the in-form Pro12 outfit Zebre first up, director of rugby David Humphreys admits a fast start is crucial.
Humphreys said: “We’ve got to start off well. Like ourselves they had a slow start to the season but after the last couple of games, having beaten both Edinburgh and Cardiff, they will come in with a lot more confidence.
“For us it’s about trying to get some winning momentum, as that gives everyone confidence every week no matter where we are playing.
“We had a wonderful experience last year, getting to the final and winning it. It was a huge reward for the players and staff that worked so hard throughout the year and probably our supporters enjoyed it even more than we did.
“So we’re glad to be back in this competition and looking forward to starting our defence.”
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