RUGBY UNION: English trio striving for Heineken Cup impact

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OH DEAR, how embarrassing. Only three English clubs - Bath, Leicester and, at a pinch, Harlequins - can justifiably claim a Heineken Cup track record worthy of the name, and all of them are caught between a European rock and a continental hard place this weekend. If things go badly wrong over the next 24 hours, the illustrious trio will effectively be out of the competition before Christmas - a shambles that would provoke a serious outbreak of schadenfreude among the Celtic contingent on the organising committee.

The Premiership clubs' impact on this season's tournament has been so minimal that an outsider would be forgiven for wondering whether the English boycott was still in force. Both Bath and Leicester have lost two out of three; even if they do the business this weekend they will almost certainly have to win in France next month to have any chance of making the knock- out stage.

Quins are marginally better placed, but their home defeat by Treviso in the second round of matches left them unnecessarily exposed. Failure to beat Montferrand at the Stade Marcel Michelin this evening will leave them an uphill climb of K2 proportions.

Leicester are in a horrendous state; their World Cup players have not recovered from their exertions on behalf of Clive and country and their confidence is at its lowest ebb since the dawn of the professional era.

True, they beat Stade Francais at Welford Road last month, but they needed a 16th Tiger in the shape of Clayton Thomas, the Welsh Test referee, to squeeze out a result. This afternoon they must prevail over Andy Nicol's Caledonians outfit - opponents who put 30 points on them in Scotland only six days ago.

Nicol, who led Bath to the title in 1998, can sense a double whammy in the making. "You could see by the demeanour of the Leicester players that they were suffering from a lack of confidence," said Nicol, reflecting on the first leg of the contest at McDiarmid Park in Perth. "They will work hard to raise their game, but we beat them convincingly last time and intend to pose the same questions again. We were 21 points up at one stage on Sunday and we kept them off the scoreboard for an hour. Whichever way you look at it, that's a strong performance." No shortage of self- belief there, then.

Bath, on the other hand, are never lacking in confidence: they honestly believe they will win every game they play, even when common sense says otherwise. Andy Robinson, their coach, made a statement of sorts yesterday by naming an unchanged side for tomorrow's return fixture with Swansea at the Recreation Ground, even though his most experienced loose forwards, Ben Clarke and Angus Gardiner, were passed fit. Both men missed the single point, injury-time defeat at St Helen's, but Robinson clearly believes the second-string unit of Nathan Thomas, Gavin Thomas and Ben Sturnham has plenty going for it. Clarke and Gardiner must make do with a seat on the bench.

By contrast, Quins have treated themselves to some judicious back-row tinkering by recalling player-coach Zinzan Brooke at No 8, shifting the disruptive Adam Leach to the blindside flank and eliminating the even more disruptive Rory Jenkins. Around 15,000 Montferrand supporters will be baying for blood following the City-slickers' wholly unexpected victory over the French side in London last weekend, but much to their chagrin they will not have the exquisite pleasure of throwing insults at Will Carling. Not immediately, at any rate. Carling may be club captain, but he remains a replacement.