Balshaw back to face French test

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The Independent Online

The Parker Pen Challenge Cup quarter-finals could be described as something of a bruise cruise for Bath, Saracens and Connacht, who all travel to France for their first-leg ties this weekend.

All three face difficult matches. Bath, who are still on course for a European and domestic double, tackle Béziers at the Stade de la Mediterranée knowing very little about their opponents. The West Country club should possess enough all-round power and pace to overcome their opponents and welcome back the England wing Iain Balshaw, who has recovered from a calf injury.

It is not so clear-cut for Saracens, who take on Montferrand, a team bristling with French internationals including Olivier Magne, Gérald Merceron, Tony Marsh, Olivier Azam, Aurelien Rougerie and David Bory, not to mention the Australian international Pat Howard and the former Leicester and England hooker Richard Cockerill.

The match represents Saracens' sternest test to date and, given the French club's imperious home record and Saracens' dismal away form, the odds are on the Watford side returning home empty-handed.

Connacht tackle Narbonne for the third time in three seasons and their coach, Michael Bradley, said: "We know them pretty well and it suits us better to be playing away in the first leg because we will then know exactly what we will have to do when Narbonne come to the Galway Sportsground next Saturday, and that just might make all the difference."

The remaining quarter-final tie sees Harlequins with perhaps one of the toughest matches of the round, at home to Brive, and they will hope that history repeats itself. Three years ago, when Quins won the tournament, they beat Brive at the quarter-final stage thanks to an away victory.

The tie reunites the Quins coach, Mark Evans, with the Brive and former France fly-half Alain Penaud, and Evans said: "Brive possess a good scrum and driving line-out, with fly-half Alain Penaud running the whole show. He is a wonderfully gifted player, as I saw first-hand when he was with Saracens." Little wonder that Evans has recalled his big guns for the showdown at The Stoop. Back come Will Greenwood, Jason Leonard, Ceri Jones, Tani Fuga, Pat Sanderson, Ace Tiatia, Andre Vos, Simon Keogh and Ugo Monye.