Rugby Union: Brive's turn to enter Tigers' den

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The Independent Online
Alain Penaud and his formidable Brive side have grown accustomed to the joys of putting British teams to the sword in front of howling packed houses armed with firecrackers, smoke flares and enough trumpets, trombones and tubas to kit out the Paris Opera. Tomorrow, they will know what it is like to be on the receiving end.

It will be a case of Christians being thrown to the Tigers, rather than the lions. Leicester, who face the Frenchmen in the final of the Heineken European Cup at Cardiff Arms Park, will take upwards of 20,000 supporters with them while Brive can rely only on a quarter of that.

Neath, Harlequins and Cardiff have gone belly-up at the Parc Municipal des Sports during the course of a compelling tournament; urged on by the most noisily passionate crowd in northern hemisphere rugby, Brive have proved untouchable at home. But as Tudor Thomas, the Leicester secretary, said yesterday: "I think the Arms Park will look more like Welford Road tomorrow than anything you might find in south-west France."

Early indications suggest that more than 40,000 spectators will watch the match - a remarkable advance on last year's attendance of 26,000 at the same stadium, especially as Cardiff were involved on that occasion. With live television coverage also guaranteed, the showpiece climax of the most significant club competition held in Europe will have the profile it deserves.

Leicester, who go in as clear favourites, have identified the Brive forwards, Didier Casadei and Gregori Kacala, as the main threats. Bob Dwyer, the Tigers' coach, has watched the Frenchmen closely on video and is more wary of their pack than any of the Fancy Dan brigade outside, even though Penaud, David Venditti, Sebastien Viars and Phillipe Carbonneau are either current or recent Test performers.

"At more than 17st, Kacala is a rare size for an open-side flanker and he appears to be central to the Brive forward efforts," Dwyer said. "Our own open side, Neil Back, does not boast those dimensions and you might anticipate him looking across to Dean Richards and saying, 'Deano, he's your man.'

"But Neil simply doesn't play like a 14st weakling; for my money, he plays like a 17-stoner. No one in English rugby has stronger leg drive in a tackle situation and we have no fears that he'll be able to cope."

Privately, the Tigers are more worried about Casadei, a regular-sized prop who, nevertheless, has the raw strength and mobility to hurt class opposition in all areas of the field. As Ian Smith, one of Dwyer's colleagues on the Leicester coaching panel, admitted: "He looks a handful. He clears opponents out of the way and allows Brive to employ the driving maul that strikes me as their most destructive weapon."

Dwyer concurred: "Quite frankly, Brive are a little too much like us for me to feel completely happy. They are not a classical French side, like Toulouse or Agen. Their forwards work much more as a unit; all French packs are physically strong, but this one is much tighter and more together than is often the case. They drive a maul as well as Otago do in New Zealand and that, believe me, is high praise."

Dwyer confirmed that John Liley, the full-back, would go in as first- choice goalkicker, with his outside-half brother, Rob, as back-up. Liley cracked twice in eight days at the end of last season and, to all intents and purposes, cost his club a league and cup double as a result. Tomorrow's confrontation will be a major test of nerve.

As it will be for Rory Underwood, the record-breaking England wing who has struggled for a first-team place all season. Dwyer gave him a big vote of confidence yesterday, saying: "We haven't just picked him for his big-match experience. He's in because his form has gone past Leon Lloyd's. Rory has been an object lesson to us all; if you get a kickback, you either lay down and die or get on with it. He chose not to die."

Brive (v Leicester, Heineken European Cup final, Cardiff, tomorrow): S Viars; G Fabre, C Lamaison, D Venditti, S Carrat; A Penaud (capt), P Carbonneau; D Casadei, L Travers, R Crespy, E Allegret, G Ross, L van der Linden, D Buboisset, G Kacala. Replacements: S Bonnet, R Paillat, C Heymans, T Labrousse, A Rees, E Bouti, Y Domi.