Rugby Union: Bath greet Dax with backs to wall

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The Independent Online
Quick, send for the Pitbull. This weekend's potentially decisive round of Heineken European Cup pool matches is all about Anglo-French rivalry and if ever England's top clubs needed an urgent transfusion of Brian Moore's ultra-red blood cells, it is now.

During his days as his country's first-choice hooker and winder-up in chief, Moore was never anything less than the complete competitor, an antagonist with knobs on. When it came to facing the French he was something else again, an irrepressible compound of Henry V, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Alf Garnett. And where will he be today when his people need him? Playing for Richmond at Blackheath, that's where. Scandalous.

So the English will have to get along without him as best they can and rest assured, it will be no easy matter. When the competition started at the beginning of the month the general assumption was that all four Courage League clubs would make the knockout phase with something to spare; Wasps, it was conceded, were slightly vulnerable in the so-called Group of Death but Bath, Leicester and Harlequins were stone-cold certainties for the later stages. That, though, was then.

Things have gone pear-shaped to such a degree that by the end of this weekend's hostilities, both Wasps and Bath may be out of the tournament. Whatever the Londoners achieve against the reigning champions and title favourites Toulouse at Loftus Road today, Cardiff can send them packing by beating Milan at the Arms Park tomorrow afternoon. It is even more black and white for Bath, who must beat Dax at the Recreation Ground today to stay in contention.

Harlequins remain a sound bet for a quarter-final place but defeat at Brive tomorrow will almost certainly deprive them of a home draw in next month's quarter- finals. Leicester, meanwhile, will condemn themselves to an uncomfortably risky win-or-bust match with Llanelli next weekend if they fail to bring home the bacon from Pau in today's potentially explosive forward confrontation.

According to Bob Dwyer, the World Cup-winning Australian coach who is now in his second month at Leicester, the French are not all they are cracked up to be at club level. "I was surprised at just how poor their basic skills were," he said on moving to the Midlands from Paris, where he had just spent a year trying unsuccessfully to impose some sort of work ethic on the exquisitely gifted layabouts of Racing Club de France. "When it came to training, they didn't want to know. They were sloppy and don't-carish. If a fourth-team player back home in Sydney turned in some of the stuff I saw in France, I'd ask him what the hell was going on."

But then, Racing Club are no longer a top-flight side. The French teams involved in both the Heineken Cup and the second-string European Conference competition could hardly be more serious, as their current record demonstrates all too clearly: seven wins from eight outings in the main event, 18 victories from 19 cross-border matches in the Conference. At the moment, the only people beating French sides are other French sides.

Nick Farr-Jones, the man who captained the Wallabies through the great days of Dwyer's stewardship, does not share his compatriot's surprise at the consistent quality of French performances during the campaign. Now based in Paris, his own advisory position with Brive has given him a sharp insight into current attitudes across the Channel.

"I could understand Bob's frustration with Racing Club because quite frankly, they were a disgrace last season," he said. "But at the top end, club rugby here is very strong indeed. Like all French sides, the likes of Brive and Dax can blow hot and cold - on a good day they are well nigh unstoppable, on a bad day they are terrible. In general, though, they are formidable opponents for anyone, particularly at home."

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