Ashton calls for courage to dent French ambition

This afternoon's tie between Biarritz and Bath pitches the most ambitious of French clubs against the least consistent of English ones - teams who know so little about each other they might almost be described as perfect strangers. Tomorrow's thunderous all-Ireland affair between Leinster and Munster is quite the opposite. Their match is a back-garden scrap between next-door neighbours.

The French champions, among the favourites for the title from the outset, make no bones of the fact that they consider the West Countrymen to be one of life's mysteries. Who can blame them? Brian Ashton feels the same way, and he is the Bath coach. Yet if Ashton cannot explain the peaks and troughs of form that still beset his charges, apart from to suggest that his efforts to open his players' minds to new thinking necessarily involves a "suck it and see" element, he relishes this unexpected opportunity for European advancement precisely because of the unfamiliarity factor.

"From my perspective," he said yesterday, "this situation suits me down to the ground. It's the kind of challenge I most enjoy, plotting to play against a team who don't quite know what to expect from us. If we make mistakes in this game, Biarritz have the players to punish us. But this is the time for mental courage. I'd be worried if any team under my direction went into a match reluctant to play some rugby, and I'll be bitterly disappointed if that happens in a game of this magnitude on one of the best stages imaginable. As I keep saying, if you can't get excited about an occasion like this, why bother?"

Ashton is most worried about the potency of the Basques' kicking game - a game they play with extreme prejudice through the likes of Dimitri Yachvili, Julien Peyrelongue, Damien Traille, Philippe Bidabé and Nicolas Brusque. "All French teams have this in their armoury nowadays," he said. "We beat Bourgoin twice in the pool stage, but still lost out by 30 metres every time there was a kicking duel. We'll have to be extra-careful this time."

Over in the Irish capital, the Munster hordes descending on Lansdowne Road for their team's sixth semi-final in seven years are wondering whether Ronan O'Gara can put boot to ball with similarly destructive effect. This is a classic confrontation between the piano players and the piano shifters, with Munster cast in the latter role. If O'Gara kicks poorly, Brian O'Driscoll and his colleagues in a wonderfully accomplished Leinster back division will cause a dozen different kinds of mayhem. If O'Gara has one of his on-days and presents his roughhouse forwards with the field positions they relish, not even Michael Cheika, the highly regarded Leinster coach, will have an answer.

Lansdowne Road is not Thomond Park - for which O'Driscoll and company are profoundly grateful, for the Munster pack is close to unstoppable when driven along by a Limerick crowd that continues to set new standards of rabid zealotry.

Leinster will feel far more secure in tomorrow's surroundings. Munster know how to play them, and the Dubliners know they know. But by beating Toulouse in the way they did in the quarter-final at the start of the month, the great underachievers of Irish rugby proved, to themselves as much as anyone, that they are capable of staring down opponents of the highest class on an occasion of the utmost significance.

Neither tie is easy to pick. Biarritz are probably the most complete of the four contenders, but they tend to play so within themselves that any flash of self-expression seems an aberration. They have the all-round strength to cope with Bath, just as Munster have the muscle to deal with Leinster, but this tournament deals in the currency of surprise. Only a soothsayer or a fool would lay down a penny of his money at the betting shop.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future