Leicester to be tested by freeze and the French

Chris Hewett looks forward to two Britain against France battles in this weekend's European Cup semi-finals
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The Independent Online
Leicester have been in unbeatable form recently. Their last defeat was at Wasps in September and they have scarcely looked in serious trouble since but they were tantalisingly close to finishing a poor second to the weather yesterday as the frost bit deep into the Welford Road turf. This afternoon's Heineken European Cup semi-final with Toulouse was still in the balance as night fell over the East Midlands.

No one could accuse the Tigers of taking the freeze-up lying down. They covered their pitch with a vast protective balloon, wheeled in a convoy of powerful industrial heaters and recruited all the volunteers they could find to clear snow from the terracing. Unfortunately for them, a frustrating catalogue of accidents - split canvas, dodgy electrics and frozen diesel - left them working against the clock to stave off a bitter disappointment. A final decision was being made by the Scottish referee, Jim Fleming, this morning.

There was better news from south-west France, where Brive take on Cardiff in tomorrow's second semi-final. The hosts declared their Parc Municipal des Sports ground playable, so Hemi Taylor's Welshmen were flying out last night for their shot at a place in a second successive European Cup final.

Back at Welford Road, the Leicester chief executive Peter Wheeler was cursing his luck. "We've done everything humanly possible to get the game on but we haven't been helped by events conspiring against us," he said. "There was a delay in getting the protective balloon here from Upton Park. Having erected it, we then found that it came apart at the dead of night on Thursday and let in some of the frost.

"Our main concern has to be the safety of the players. Both sides have some expensive merchandise to think about and the last thing anyone needs is to see people picking up injuries because of dangerous conditions."

Remarkably, Leicester and Toulouse found places to train yesterday and happily declared all injury scares to be no more than that. Leicester's Stuart Potter, Rob Liley and John Wells were cleared to play at centre, outside-half and flanker respectively while the Frenchmen named all three of their main concerns - Emile N'Tamack, Thomas Castaignede and Christophe Deylaud - in a back division fairly bristling with attacking brilliance.

The all-clear in the Leicester camp condemned Rory Underwood, England's record-breaking wing, to an afternoon on the bench. Despite scoring two characteristically sharp tries against Harlequins last week the 85-cap veteran lost out to the exciting youngster, Leon Lloyd.

Bob Dwyer, Leicester's Australian coach, was in no doubt that Toulouse posed the most potent challenge to his side's long run of success. "They are a very fine all-round side," he said yesterday. "It would be a grave mistake for anyone to regard this simply as a match between a forward-based Leicester team and a backs-based Toulouse outfit. Both sides can play all around the paddock and we are going to have to take the right options at the right times to pull through."

His captain, the redoubtable Dean Richards, was in full agreement. He described the Heineken competition as a "very definite step up from Courage League rugby", and added: "Having played in the matches against Pau, Llanelli and the quarter-final with Quins, I can say it is harder and faster than the contests we encounter domestically."

Not surprisingly, the Tigers' enthusiasm to play today bordered on desperation. With N'Tamack and Castaignede seriously short of match fitness and the Toulouse camp as a whole less than enthusiastic about spending an afternoon on the equivalent of a rutted skating rink, Richards and his men were under the distinct impression that they fancied the game far more than their opponents - a crucial factor at this level of competition. That view was effectively borne out by Ntamack, the visiting captain, who said: "To play an English team in these conditions would double their home advantage.''

Meanwhile, Cardiff were making their trip to the Limousin region with an air of increasing confidence. Brive, who can rely on fanatical support, were mightily impressive in sweeping aside Harlequins during the pool stages but for all the brilliance of a threequarter line boasting the elegant full-back Sebastien Viars and the thrilling counter-attacking wing Sebastien Carrat, the suspicion is that the Frenchmen are vulnerable to a strong and determined forward performance.

Leicester (v Toulouse, today, 3.05): J Liley; S Hackney, S Potter, W Greenwood, L Lloyd; R Liley, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, N Back, D Richards (capt).

Toulouse: S Ougier; E N'Tamack (capt), M Marfaing, T Castaignede, D Berty; C Deylaud, J Cazalbou; C Califano, P Soula, J-L Jordana, H Miorin, F Belot, D Lacroix, R Sonnes, S Dispagene.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).

Brive (v Cardiff, tomorrow, 2.30): S Viars; G Fabre, C Lamaison, D Venditti, S Carrat; A Penaud (capt), P Carbonneau; D Casadei, L Travers, R Crespy, E Allegret, G Roos, L van der Linden, G Kacala, F Duboisset.

Cardiff: J Thomas; S Hill, M Hall, L Davies, N Walker; J Davies, R Howley; A Lewis, J Humphreys, L Mustoe, J Wakeford, D Jones, H Taylor (capt), G Jones, E Lewis.

Referee: B Stirling (Ireland).

WHERE THE GAMES WILL BE WON AND LOST

Will Greenwood v Thomas Castaignede

Castaignede was the midfield diamond of last year's Five Nations, drop- kicking France to victory over England in Paris and performing with verve in a losing cause against the Welsh in Cardiff. He has mastered the full repertoire of attacking arts and his quicksilver running behind a solid Toulouse pack gives the visitors a lethal edge. But Greenwood has the muscle to threaten his slighter opponents. At 6ft 5in and 15st plus, the former Harlequin is the antidote to Castaignede's magic and if he casts the right spells, Leicester will be half-way home.

Darren Garforth v Christian Califano

An individual tussle of enormous importance, with Leicester's in-form tight-head prop standing eyeball to eyeball with one of the most effective and certainly the most talented loose-heads in world rugby.Both men bring a thoroughly modern approach to front-row play with their expert ball- carrying and enthusiastic tackling. Today's match gives Garforth, unlucky not to have been capped, a chance to dispel doubts over the strength of his scrummaging. Califano is central to the Toulouse efforts in both tight and loose and if Garforth can hold him, he will make out a cast-iron case for Test selection.

Alain Penaud v Jonathan Davies

Penaud has his detractors and it is fair to say that, in his performances for France, he has flattered to deceive. As long ago as 1992 he looked capable of elevating French outside-half play to new heights but for every flash of genius, his forwards had to suffer a bagful of wrong options. However, he runs the Brive show with considerable flair and Davies will need to draw on everything he has learned over the past decade to handle him. It has not been the best of weeks for the returning Messiah - he was left out of the Welsh side to face the United States next week - but, as he showed in the quarter-final against Bath, there is no substitute for experience.

Gregori Kacala v Gwyn Jones

A huge test for Jones, who has played just one competitive match since dislocating his shoulder in Australia last summer. The most intelligent ball-winner in Welsh rugby, he will encounter a severe physical examination in the shape of Kacala, a Polish international who stands some four inches taller and weighs in at well over 17st, two and a half stones heavier than his opponent. Kacala has been the pick of the Brive forwards during the Euro campaign, running hard off the edges of ferocious driving mauls and putting in big open-field tackles by the dozen. If he is allowed to run riot, Cardiff will pay a heavy price.

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