A continent in union, a game at war

The English clubs are at loggerheads with Twickenham, the French are just at loggerheads and the Irish may not be at their best - time then for the Welsh and Scots
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With the Premiership outfits again engaged in a power struggle with the establishment and the French clubs knocking the foie gras out of each other in a domestic championship that has reached new heights of violence, the time is ripe for the Welsh, complete with Jonah Lomu, and the Scots to raise their game.

The problem for England's finest is that they enter the competition with one eye on the ball and the other on the club-country dispute, which seems to be worsening by the minute. Having already withheld £135,000 from Leicester, Wasps and Sale over the trio's refusal to observe the post-Lions 11-week rest period, the Rugby Football Union upped the stakes on Thursday.

They fired off a letter to Premier Rugby asking them if they recognised the so-called Long Form Agreement. Oh, and in the meantime they can whistle for a cheque of £1 million which was due to be paid to the clubs this month as compensation for the release of international players. Instead, the RFU have placed the money in a high-interest savings account. With Francis Baron, the chief executive, warning that England's defence of the World Cup is being imperilled, the RFU want a response from the clubs by tomorrow.

In the current mood, Premier Rugby - they have already issued a writ, prompting the Union to employ a top QC - might be tempted to inform Twickenham that the élite players are no longer available for England duty.

It is against such a precarious backdrop that Sale, who have five English Lions, including Charlie Hodgson and Jason Robinson, open the Heineken Cup on Friday evening with an awkward assignment against Munster at Stockport in Pool One. The Irish province, who once beat the All Blacks but regard this competition as their Holy Grail, are adapting to life without Christian Cullen and Mike Mullins, who both have long-term injuries. Gary Connolly, the 34-year-old former rugby league star, joins a cosmopolitan back line, and up front Declan Kidney, back as coach, puts his faith in eight Munstermen. This promises to be a severe test of Sale's ambitions.

The following day Toulouse open their defence against Llanelli in another blue-chip engagement. The Scarlets could not face a more daunting task, yet they may as well be thrown in at the deep end. The other members of Pool Six are Wasps and Edinburgh, thus making it a contender for the "group of death", although the Grim Reaper is also lurking over Pool Three - Leicester, Stade Français, the Ospreys and Clermont Auvergne.

Under Ian McGeechan, Wasps have looked particularly impressive, but if anybody considers Edinburgh the weak link here they could be making a mistake. There are signs that the Scots are finally coming to terms with professionalism. Frank Hadden's promotion to coach of the national team means that Todd Blackadder, the former All Blacks captain, is the interim coach of Edinburgh. Blackadder is one of the best things to happen to Scottish rugby in a long, long time. His change of duty has resulted in the captaincy passing to Chris Paterson, who was unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate) not to be selected for the Lions tour of New Zealand. McGeechan ret-urns to Edinburgh next Sunday when Wasps take the high road.

The weekend's matches have nine different kick-off times, dictated by five television companies. It is an inherent weakness of the tournament. The euro or the pound? The organisers don't care as long as TV pays. First up on Saturday are Cardiff against Leeds with a 1pm start.

It is time that the Blues, in a comparatively tranquil Pool Two, emerged as something other than the Principality's capital wasters. There is no salary cap in Wales, but with little money to play with there has been no need. However, Cardiff's funding of £1.7m from the Welsh Rugby Union has been boosted by private backers, and the club managed to attract Lomu. The phenomenal wing recovered from his kidney transplant to play in Martin Johnson's testimonial match at Twickenham last season but injured a shoulder, which will delay his arrival until mid-November.

"I need to play week in, week out," Lomu said. "I've got unfinished business with international rugby. I've never gone into anything half-heartedly and this is not an easy option. I watched the Six Nations and most of the quality fare was served up by the Welsh." Lomu is on £3,000 a week. "This is no gimmick," said Robert Norster, Cardiff's chief executive. "Jonah wants to get his career back on track. There aren't many global stars, and he's a pied piper for the game. We're well aware we have the tag of underachievers, and it's time we started to punch our weight."

Cardiff, who reached the first final at the Arms Park and lost to Toulouse, have an added incentive in that the final in May is at the Millennium Stadium. "Everything's in place for us to perform consistently rather than periodically," Norster said. "We've got a partnership with the WRU that allows the national team a proper level of access without destroying the club game. We're all strapped to the same wheel." Are they listening across the Severn?


Gareth Thomas: The exile

For Gareth Thomas, the Wales captain, a cloud on the horizon usually means a silver lining. Given the choice of Bridgend or Toulouse, where would you choose to live? The demise of the Celtic Warriors has given Thomas's career a Gallic twist.

Gary Connolly: The convert

Like Andy Farrell, Gary Connolly is attempting to give his successful rugby league career a union makeover. Unlike Farrell, who has yet to put his best foot forward for Saracens, Connolly is making his mark at Munster.

Tom Rees: The rookie

Tom Rees pranged an ankle, but not before putting in a sensational performance for Wasps against Leicester. Club v country? The 21-year-old flanker is expected to feature for both.

Louis Deacon: The inheritor

A product of the Leicester Academy, Louis Deacon has an impressive past and an outstanding future. The lock invariably catches the eye. Has the chance to fill the giant-sized boots of one Martin Johnson.

Chris Paterson: The leader

Scottish rugby has been as visible as the Loch Ness monster, but there are signs of revival, not least in Edinburgh, where Chris Paterson is captain.


Pool 1: Munster, Castres Olympique, Sale, Newport-Gwent Dragons. Pool 2: Calvisano, Perpignan, Leeds, Cardiff Blues. Pool 3: Ospreys, Stade Français, Leicester, Clermont Auvergne. Pool 4: Biarritz, Saracens, Ulster, Benetton Treviso. Pool 5: Glasgow, Bourgoin, Bath, Leinster. Pool 6: Wasps, Toulouse, Llanelli Scarlets, Edinburgh.

Round 1: Fri 21 Oct: Sale v Munster, Ulster v Treviso, Bourgoin v Glasgow. Sat 22 Oct: Castres v Dragons, Blues v Leeds, Calvisano v Perpignan, Leicester v Clermont Auvergne, Leinster v Bath, Toulouse v Scarlets. Sun 23 Oct: Ospreys v Stade Français, Saracens v Biarritz, Edinburgh v Wasps.

Round 2: Fri 28 Oct: Dragons v Sale, Leeds v Calvisano, Perpignan v Blues. Sat 29 Oct: Munster v Castres, Stade Français v Leicester, Treviso v Saracens, Biarritz v Ulster, Bath v Bourgoin, Scarlets v Edinburgh. Sun 30 Oct: Clermont Auvergne v Ospreys, Glasgow v Leinster, Wasps v Toulouse.

Round 3: Fri 9 Dec: Castres v Sale, Ulster v Saracens. Sat 10 Dec: Dragons v Munster, Calvisano v Blues, Clermont Auvergne v Stade Français, Leinster v Bourgoin, Bath v Glasgow, Edinburgh v Toulouse. Sun 11 Dec: Leeds v Perpignan, Leicester v Ospreys, Biarritz v Treviso, Scarlets v Wasps.

Round 4: 16, 17, 18 Dec: Sale v Castres, Munster v Dragons, Blues v Calvisano, Perpignan v Leeds, Ospreys v Leicester, Stade Français v Clermont Auvergne, Saracens v Ulster, Treviso v Biarritz, Bourgoin v Leinster, Glasgow v Bath, Toulouse v Edinburgh, Wasps v Scarlets.

Round 5: 13, 14, 15 Jan 2006: Sale v Dragons, Castres v Munster, Blues v Perpignan, Calvisano v Leeds, Ospreys v Clermont Auvergne, Leicester v Stade Français, Ulster v Biarritz, Saracens v Treviso, Bourgoin v Bath, Leinster v Glasgow, Toulouse v Wasps, Edinburgh v Scarlets.

Round 6: 20, 21, 22 Jan: Dragons v Castres, Munster v Sale, Perpignan v Calvisano, Leeds v Blues, Clermont Auvergne v Leicester, Stade Français v Ospreys, Biarritz v Saracens, Treviso v Ulster, Bath v Leinster, Glasgow v Bourgoin, Wasps v Edinburgh, Scarlets v Toulouse.

Quarter-finals: 1-2 April.

Semi-finals: 22-23 April.

Final: 20 May (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff).