Rugby Union: French look to polish their dominance

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The Independent Online
The English clamour for a fifth foothold in the Heineken Cup may be growing in volume, but the evidence provided by the second-tier European Conference tournament is not supportive. Last season, the French contributed seven of the eight quarter-finalists and their continuing dominance will surely be brought to bear when increased national representation in the main competition comes up for discussion.

Agen, Montferrand and Stade Francais already have their feet under the knock-out table and they are likely to be joined by Colomiers and Castres. Of the English contingent, only unbeaten Newcastle are certain to play a role in the later stages.

Two other Allied Dunbar Premiership sides, Gloucester and Northampton, need to prevail in difficult circumstances this weekend to retain an interest. Gloucester, who must win in Padova tomorrow, travel without their two England internationals. Mark Mapletoft (groin trouble) and Phil Greening (neck strain) will be replaced by Nick Osman and Neil McCarthy respectively.

Northampton, meanwhile, must contend with Connacht, who thrashed the Saints in Galway in the opening match of the campaign and then unexpectedly saw off Nice, and Begles-Bordeaux (home and away) to leave themselves top going into today's showdown at Franklins Gardens. It is a straight winner-take-all shoot-out and with Eric Elwood in fine kicking form for the visitors, it is also too close to call.

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