Rugby Union: Cross-border rivals ready to rumble

RUGBY UNION Heineken's pounds 20m injection and return of the English clubs provide mouthwatering prospect for European Cup
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The Independent Online
THEY MUST be feeling fairly smug, all those Wallaby types down there in Brisbane and Sydney: when you have John Eales, Tim Horan, great pitches, a perfect climate, an Institute of Sport, more new stadia than you know what to do with, a management structure that makes Microsoft look like British Leyland and the Webb Ellis Trophy safely under lock and key, a degree of self-satisfaction is inevitable.

But they do not have it all, the Australians. Not quite. They do not have the uniquely intoxicating Heineken Cup, which unleashes its one- eyed passion, narrow-minded tri-balism and bitter cross-border rivalry on the European rugby consciousness this evening with matches in three age-old capital cities.

If the southern hemisphere Super-12 is all about pushing back frontiers - it is not so much a tournament as a laboratory for rugby scientists seeking an advantage at Test level - the Heineken Cup exists in a different dimension entirely. It is about heart and soul, about local pride, about "us and them". How many Queenslanders travel to New South Wales for a Super-12 match? Fifty on a good day. How many Leicester faithful will be in Paris for the big rumble with Stade Francais in January? Thousands. If you believe supporters have a meaningful stake in professional union, along with the players and coaches and boardroom fat cats with wallets the size of housing estates, then this is the competition that matters.

It was, and remains, a scandal that the pioneering continentalists of Bath, perhaps the first British side fully to embrace the cross-border ideal, were not permitted to defend the title they won in Bordeaux a little under two years ago. Yet last season's English boycott, marking as it did a subterraneously low point in the conflict between the ambitious new elite at the top end of the club movement and the largely discredited old guard on the national unions, served its political purpose. There is now a sensible, season-long fixture schedule and a more realistic share of the pot, developments that have enticed Heineken back on board to the very merry tune of pounds 20m over four years and secured live television with the BBC (Grandstand plus three regional networks), British Eurosport and FR2, the major French broadcaster.

United Kingdom rugby being the shambolic enterprise it is, there are still mutterings about the establishment of a British League, which would rescue the Welsh and the Scots from domestic dead ends of their own construction but do nothing whatsoever for the English, who carry more commercial clout than the Celtic countries combined.

Hence yesterday's comments from Jolyon Armstrong, the knowledgeable and eternally enthusiastic Heineken representative, at the tournament launch at the Recreation Ground. "From our perspective, we hope to bring some stability and continuity to the club game in these islands by providing the financial bedrock that will allow all parties - European Rugby Cup Ltd, the unions and the clubs - to work together," he said. In other words, give this particular peace a chance before we redraw the map yet again.

Tonight's opening altercation between Cardiff and Harlequins at the Arms Park captures the imagination precisely because the combatants do not meet umpteen times a season. In a workaday British league scenario, familiarity would inevitably breed contempt; in the Heineken Cup context, Cardiff- Quins has the shock of the new about it, the delicious edginess of the unpredictable. The same goes for Leinster-Leicester in Dublin where, for one evening only, the Irishmen have the English champions exactly where they want them - at Donnybrook, under lights, in front of a steaming full house. There is nothing routine or so-so about these matches. They are the real deal. Edinburgh Reivers complete the line-up against Grenoble.

Of course, the Clive Woodwards of this world will raise more questions than the tournament can possibly answer. Does the Heineken Cup really bridge the gap between club and international rugby? Does it do enough to develop young talent? What about the superannuated foreign legion, earning their retirement pay while ambitious youngsters kick their heels on the bench? Will it help England rise above the mediocre and play hard- ball with the best? These are legitimate inquiries, but nowhere near as relevant as those who work from an international agenda like to think.

Unlike Australia, where the Wallabies are all that matter, England is a broad rugby church in which the Test side does not come first, second and third. Give the average Recreation Grounder or Welford Roader the choice between a red rose victory in the World Cup and a local triumph in Europe, and he or she will opt for the latter every time. If the badged and blazered committee wallahs sitting on Fran Cotton's Club England recoil in horror from such parish-pump sedition, they should remember that New Zealand and South Africa geared everything towards winning the Webb Ellis Trophy in Cardiff a fortnight ago and went home with nothing more valuable than their dirty laundry.

Which is not to suggest that the Heineken Cup is free of serious issues. The plan to restrict next year's entry to 20, rather than the current 24, puts enormous pressure on both Wales and Ireland, who are used to enjoying a major presence in the elite competition. With England and France guaranteed four places each and the other competing nations two apiece, the remaining slots will be filled on the basis of the previous season's semi-finalists.

If, for example, no Welsh side makes the last four this time, the principality's representation in 2000-2001 will be down to the bare minimum of two. Where would that leave Graham Henry and his super-club strategy, under which the national union gives all sorts of incentives and dispensations to a quartet of leading teams?

Astonishingly, there is no guarantee that this season's champions will compete next time round. Neither is there any plan to include the winners of the second-tier European Shield, which needs the carrot of Heineken Cup entry to justify its existence. "It's an argument that is likely to run and run," said a tournament spokesman yesterday. "But as things stand, the national unions decide who represents them in the main competition. Bath could win this competition, just as they did in '98, but a poor finish in the Allied Dunbar Premiership could cost them a place next time." Strange, but true.

No English side will win the title without a superhuman effort and an ocean of luck - precisely the ingredients behind Bath's success two seasons ago.

Northampton probably have the best run into the knock-out stage, but Leicester and Bath look better equipped in terms of character and know- how.

Saracens will be dangerous, but may find the unique demands of the competition beyond them at the first time of asking. And the French? Look no further than the big three: Toulouse, Montferrand and Stade Francais. Of these, the Stade look particularly well equipped, especially as a number of leading players - Franck Comba, Thomas Lombard, Arthur Gomes and Sylvain Marconnet among them - feel they have something to prove to the Tricolore selectors.

The Parisians should have won the title last year, but were blown away by a force-10 gale of Belfast sound and fury. They have learned from that bitter experience and do not intend to be mugged a second time.

HOW THEY LINE UP FOR THE EUROPEAN CUP

GROUP A

GLASGOW CALEDONIANS

LEICESTER

LEINSTER

STADE FRANcAIS

It will boil down to two elemental scraps, one at Welford Road and the other at Stade Jean Bouin, the blood-soaked Parisian rugby bullring situated only a long Richard Cockerill line-out throw from the peace and quiet of the Bois de Boulogne. True, Leicester caught a cold in Dublin two years ago; true, Glasgow are far stronger and more assertive now than in 1997- 98, when they reached the last eight. But Leinster were badly exposed during the recent Irish Provincial Championship and, for all their recruitment, the Scots can boast only three Test first-choicers. The automatic quarter- final place lies between the big boys, both of whom feel they have under- achieved at European level. If next weekend's meeting in the East Midlands has "epic" stamped all over it, the return in France will be really serious. Hold on to your hats.

FIXTURES: Today: Leinster v Leicester (7.30). Sunday: Stade Francais v Glasgow Caledonians (3pm). 26 Nov: Glasgow v Leinster. 27 Nov: Leicester v Stade F. 12 Dec: Glasgow v Leicester; Stade F v Leinster. 17 Dec: Leinster v Stade F; 18 Dec: Leicester v Glasgow. 7 Jan: Leinster v Glasgow. 8 Jan: Stade F v Leicester. 14 Jan: Glasgow v Stade F. 15 Jan: Leicester v Leinster.

GROUP B

BATH

PADOVA

SWANSEA

TOULOUSE

Crikey, what a quartet. Or rather, what a trio. With due respect to Michael Cheika's outsiders from Italy, the fun and games will centre around the six matches involving the sharpest, most imaginative and most extravagantly gifted outfits in England, Wales and France. The group of death? For sure. At least one side with realistic title ambitions will fail to make the last eight and, if results elsewhere go the wrong way, a second big hitter will get an early taste of canvas. Fifty-odd internationals are sardined into the Bath, Swansea and Toulouse squads, bringing a combustible mix of talent, ego and naked ambition to a fascinating equation. Only this is certain: a home defeat for any of the contenders will be calamitous, because few sides play catch-up rugby at the Rec, St Helen's or Sept- Deniers and get away with it.

Tomorrow: Swansea v Padova (2.30); Bath v Toulouse (3pm). 27 Nov: Padova v Bath (2.30); Toulouse v Swansea. 10 Dec: Swansea v Bath. 11 Dec: Padova v Toulouse. 19 Dec: Bath v Swansea; Toulouse v Padova. 7 Jan: Swansea v Toulouse. 8 Jan: Bath v Padova. 15 Jan: Padova v Swansea. 16 Jan: Toulouse v Bath.

GROUP C

BOURGOIN

LLANELLI

ULSTER

WASPS

Another wonderfully potent grouping, one which the reigning champions from the north of Ireland will do extremely well to survive. Ravenhill was the only place to be last season as David Humphreys' inspired Ulstermen saw off Toulouse (twice) and Stade Francais on home soil before adding a third French scalp, that of Colomiers, to their collection in an emotional finale at Lansdowne Road. But a cultured Bourgoin, a rejuvenated Llanelli and a fitful but occasionally electrifying Wasps are different propositions to Edinburgh Reivers and Ebbw Vale, who made up the pool numbers in the 1998-99 competition. Bourgoin are dangerous animals under the stewardship of Michel Couturas but Llanelli, with the outstanding Dafydd James and two useful Tongans, Salesi Finau and Johnny Koloi, safely on board, look to be the coming men.

Tomorrow: Bourgoin v Ulster (7.30). Sunday: Wasps v Llanelli (2.15). 26 Nov: Ulster v Wasps. 27 Nov: Llanelli v Bourgoin. 10 Dec: Ulster v Llanelli. 11 Dec: Bourgoin v Wasps. 18 Dec: Llanelli v Ulster. 19 Dec: Wasps v Bourgoin. 9 Jan: Bourgoin v Llanelli; Wasps v Ulster 14 Jan: Ulster v Bourgoin. 15 Jan: Llanelli v Wasps.

GROUP D

COLOMIERS

MUNSTER

PONTYPRIDD

SARACENS

Never mind the quality, feel the passion. Colomiers may have made the final last year, but are still patronisingly dismissed as the "other" side in Toulouse; Munster and Pontypridd are down among hoi polloi, long on sweat but short up top. Even Saracens, English knock-out champions two seasons ago, are sniffily derided as Johnny-come-latelys, a paid- for product of the professional age. But what momentum this quartet will bring to the competition, with their vim and vigour and sell-out crowds. On paper, the Londoners should fancy their chances of making the quarter- finals; they have the class and flexibility to make the best think twice. But Francois Pienaar and men will find Sardis Road, Thomond Park and Stade Selery a lot different to anything in the Premiership. Pride goes before a fall.

Tomorrow: Munster v Pontypridd (2.30). Sunday: Colomiers v Saracens (3.15). 26 Nov: Pontypridd v Colomiers. 28 Nov: Saracens v Munster. 11 Dec: Colomiers v Munster. 12 Dec: Saracens v Pontypridd. 17 Dec: Pontypridd v Saracens. 18 Dec: Munster v Colomiers. 9 Jan: Colomiers v Pontypridd; Munster v Saracens. 16 Jan: Saracens v Colomiers; Pontypridd v Munster.

GROUP E

CARDIFF

HARLEQUINS

MONTFERRAND

TREVISO

Big reputations, big expectations, big recriminations awaiting the fall- guys. Harlequins are most obviously at risk, but they know what it is to win at the Arms Park, where they open their account tonight, and generally front up in European competition. Cardiff have spent a fortune in the transfer market - Neil Jenkins and Craig Quinnell are hardly bargain- basement buys - and also have a track record in this competition, while Treviso bring no fewer than 21 internationals to the party. But it is Montferrand who are most likely to light the blue touchpaper in another compelling group; the reigning European Shield champions have finishing prowess in Sebastien Viars, a zero-tolerance enforcer in Olivier Merle, a brilliant scrum-half in Alessandro Troncon and, in Olivier Magne, the best open-side flanker in the world.

Today: Cardiff v Harlequins (7.10). Tomorrow: Treviso v Montferrand (2.30). 27 Nov: Montferrand v Cardiff; Harlequins v Treviso. 10 Dec: Harlequins v Montferrand; Cardiff v Treviso. 18 Dec: Montferrand v Harlequins; Treviso v Cardiff. 8 Jan: Cardiff v Montferrand; Treviso v Harlequins. 15 Jan: Harlequins v Cardiff. 16 Jan: Montferrand v Treviso.

GROUP F

EDINBURGH REIVERS

GRENOBLE

NEATH

NORTHAMPTON

Probably the weakest of the six pools - Northampton will not lose a moment's shut-eye worrying about Neath's lightweight squad or Edinburgh's lack of bums-on-seats pulling power - Group F will still throw up a meaningful contest or three, not least when the Saints travel to eastern France to do battle at Stade Lesdiguieres. Grenoble have only one Test cap, and even he is not a Tricolore: Tony Stanger, the 1990 Grand Slam wing from the Scottish borders. But they are useful none the less; they won at Colomiers, no mean feat, on the way to last season's French Championship semi-finals and, while they have never competed in the front European rank, they will test Northampton to the limit. If Martin Leslie stays hot in the Edinburgh back row, the Scots may also spring a surprise.

Today: Edinburgh Reivers v Grenoble (7.0). Tomorrow: Northampton v Neath (3.0). 27 Nov: Grenoble v Northampton; Neath v Edinburgh. 11 Dec: Neath v Grenoble; Northampton v Edinburgh. 17 Dec: Edinburgh v Northampton. 18 Dec: Grenoble v Neath. 7 Jan: Edinburgh v Neath. 8 Jan: Northampton v Grenoble. 15 Jan: Neath v Northampton; Grenoble v Edinburgh.

EUROPEAN SHIELD

Pool 1

Begles Bordeaux, Bristol, Calvisano, Dax.

Pool 2

Bedford, Castres, Rovigo, Newport.

Pool 3

Caerphilly, Pau, Perpignan, Sale.

Pool 4

Connacht, Ebbw Vale, Steaua Bucharest, Toulon.

Pool 5

Biarritz, Bridgend, Gloucester, Spain.

Pool 6

Dunvant, Narbonne, Newcastle, Portugal

Pool 7

Agen, Brive, London Irish, Roma.

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