Rugby Union: Noves faces his betes noires

Unless Guy Noves is indulging in a particularly unsubtle form of psychological one-upmanship, he is now a clear frontrunner for the Conciliatory Boss of the Year award. His team, Toulouse, are playing like drains, he has his most influential international backs, Emile Ntamack and Christophe Deylaud, on the injury list and he knows he must beat Leicester at Welford Road this afternoon if he is to avoid a distinctly uncomfortable quarter-final play-off match at the start of next month. How does he feel, given this litany of woe? "Pleased," apparently.

Rather a rum attitude, especially as Toulouse have suffered two consecutive, morale-sapping Heineken Cup defeats at the hands of the Tigers this year. Indeed, the last time the Frenchmen pitched up in the east Midlands, they tried everything to get the game, last season's semi-final, postponed. Even though the playing surface was more suited to Torville and Dean than Ougier and Castaignede, the visitors failed miserably.

Still, Noves is very much "up" for what is effectively the Pool A decider. "Emile will play his first game of the season for a junior side tomorrow, but there is no way either he or Christophe can face Leicester," he said. "I am happy with the way we have played in this competition, however, because we have kept on improving match by match. Last season's semi-final is a bad memory - they dominated us in every phase of the game - but we want to avoid the play-offs and secure home advantage in the last eight and those ambitions are a big motivation for us."

Leicester, who beat Toulouse 22-17 at Les Sept- Deniers a fortnight ago, have problems of their own. Joel Stransky and Craig Joiner are ruled out of the midfield axis by injury, so Waisale Serevi plays at outside-half with Mitch Read filling in on the wing. There are further lingering doubts over Austin Healey and Neil Back, both of whom were undergoing a final fitness test this morning.

At least neither side can go belly-up this afternoon. For Swansea, big Welsh hopes for a quarter-final place at least, victory over Glasgow at St Helen's is critical. The Scots, galvanised by their exciting 20-year- old wing, James Craig, will send the All Whites nosediving out of the competition if they contrive to repeat the 35-21 triumph they recorded at the Scotstoun Stadium last month.

Another hot tip for a last-eight slot, Bourgoin, are also up against the eight ball. Defeat by Munster at the Stade Pierre Rajon this afternoon will leave the Challenge du Manoir champions clinging to a long-shot mathematical chance of progress to the knock-out stage. As the Irishmen are in the same boat, things could be very tasty indeed down there in eastern France.

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