Rugby Union: Tigers hunt European domination

Chris Hewett says Leicester can triumph in today's final of the Heineken Cup
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The Independent Online
John Major and his friends may find it convenient to put Continental co-operation on the back-burner for the next few months, but at least one notoriously conservative arm of the governing class has finally come to realise that there is more to Europe than beef bans, fishing quotas and Jacques Santer.

British rugby is now so deeply in love with the idea of cross-Channel competition that it will be no surprise if the players are paid in Ecus next season. The cloak of suspicion that almost smothered the Heineken European Cup at its outset four months ago has disappeared; the English and the Scots, initially so dismissive of a venture that went ahead without them last year, now swear by its name.

The tournament has refreshed parts of the northern hemisphere game that no amount of tinkering with domestic league structures could hope to reach. As a result, the Heineken Cup, which celebrates its climax today when Leicester face Brive in Cardiff, will be expanded next season, probably to incorporate a home-and-away element into the pool phase.

Roger Pickering, the tournament director, has yet to agree the precise format with the six unions involved next season, but he made it clear yesterday that the Heineken was now considered by the movers and shakers of European rugby to be pre-eminent. "There were initial teething problems but we accept that we seriously misjudged the appeal of the competition.

"By and large, the crowds have been excellent, and when you take on board the fact that almost six million people watched the Leicester-Toulouse semi-final on television, you start to get an idea of the impact."

If anyone deserves the credit for conjuring a world-class club tournament from the ashes of mismanagement - it was not until the quarter-final stage that the organisers hammered out a belated broadcasting deal with the BBC - it is the players themselves.

There have been minor classics at every turn - Bath v Dax, Pau v Leicester, Brive v Harlequins, Cardiff v Bath, Leicester v Toulouse - and when Bob Dwyer, the Tigers coach, says the competition bears comparison with the Super 12 south of the Equator, he is not being nice for the sake of it.

"If you pressed me, I would say that the Heineken is just below the top end of the Super 12," Dwyer said this week. "But I would also say that the best European performers could survive quite comfortably in the lower reaches of the rival tournament down south."

Dwyer's fellow Australian and Leicester coaching colleague, the former Wallaby lock Duncan Hall, is equally impressed. "I worked with Queensland in last year's Super 12, when we reached the semi-finals. The standard was incredibly high, but I have to say that the excitement this tournament has generated is way above anything I experienced in Brisbane. The whole of Leicester is alive at the prospect of the match."

It is appropriate that the final should be contested by the only unbeaten sides in the competition. Unlike most of the more fancied runners, notably Bath and Toulouse, both Leicester and Brive managed significant victories away from home - the Tigers in Pau and the Frenchmen in Belfast.

The parallels between the two are striking: Leicester have scored 174 points in six matches, Brive just seven fewer; the Tigers have run in 21 tries compared to their opponents' 17; Rob Liley, the Leicester goalkicker until Dwyer handed the job to his brother John at the semi-final stage, is his club's leading scorer with 62 points. Christophe Lamaison is Brive's No 1 accumulator with 62 as well.

Two obvious factors stack the odds in Leicester's favour. Their line- out, with Martin Johnson in such Olympian form at the front, is likely to be the dominant feature of an otherwise even forward battle. More importantly, the Tigers can rely on huge travelling support; there will be no l'esprit de clocher (the spirit of the bells) for Brive to draw strength from today, and that could prove their undoing.

HEINEKEN EUROPEAN CUP FINAL (Cardiff Arms Park; 2.30pm today): Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, W Greenwood, S Potter, R Underwood; R Liley, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back. Replacements: N Malone, A Kardooni, N Fletcher, E Miller, L Lloyd, P Freshwater, D West.

Brive: 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.

Referee: D Bevan (Wales).