When it comes to continental rugby, the difference between a cup and a shield is on the same vast scale as the pianistic gulf separating Alfred Brendel from Les Dawson. While this weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-finalists, notably Wasps and Llanelli, were patching up their walking wounded for this weekend's do-or-die business, Bristol were pointedly confirming a complete reserve line-up for their European Shield last-eight tie in Biarritz.
The lamentable failure of rugby's political class to guarantee this year's Shield champions a place in next season's Ã©lite competition has resulted in a farce of Brian Rix proportions. Bob Dwyer, the Bristol coach, has rested every last member of the side badly beaten by Wasps in last weekend's Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final; there will be no Agustin Pichot in south-west France tomorrow, and no Henry Honiball, Paul Johnstone or Garath Archer either. "The administrators are not interested in the tournament, so I don't see why we should be," explained Dwyer, keen to keep some powder dry for a Premiership run-in that could give the West Countrymen something they cannot get from the Shield: that is to say, Heineken qualification.
Meanwhile, Wasps, Bristol's domestic cup conquerors, were forced to rule out Rob Henderson, their Irish international centre, from their line-up for Sunday's rumble with Northampton at Franklin's Gardens. "Rob has been suffering from flu and hasn't been able to train all week, so we're going with the 100 per cent guys," said the Wasps coach, Nigel Melville, who named Mark Denney in his reshaped midfield.
Llanelli have also been fretting over their casualty list this week, but the back-room staff were able to declare a clean bill of health yesterday. The Scarlets' breakaway trio of Simon Easterby, Ian Boobyer and Scott Quinnell had all been under an injury cloud. In addition, Matt Cardey, one of a fistful of "Tasman Taffs" to appear in the Principality of late, will play at full-back after recovering from a bout of concussion.
Cardiff, who visit Llanelli in the most eagerly awaited Welsh club match for many a long year, were delaying their team announcement until this afternoon. Craig Quinnell, who recently underwent surgery on his back, is unavailable, so Lynn Howells will pair two of Mike Voyle, Steve Moore and John Tait in the blue-and-blacks' engine room. Howells must also make a call on the blind-side flank, where Steve Williams is pressing the smaller, quicker Canadian Dan Baugh for a starting berth.
Across the Irish Sea, Munster yesterday confirmed that Killian Keane would replace the injured Jason Holland at centre for tomorrow's sell-out tie with Stade FranÃ§ais at Limerick's Thomond Park. John Hayes, who played Six Nations rugby at tight head this season, replaces Peter Bracken in the front row, while Eddie Halvey is preferred to Alan Quinlan at loose forward. The Irishmen boast no fewer than seven current first-choice internationals and are clear favourites to win.
That favouritism is, in part, down to the sorry state of Stade FranÃ§ais, who are struggling to rise above a desperate run of injuries. Thomas Lombard, the Tricolore centre, is out for the season and three international Christophes - the wing Dominici, the flanker Moni and the No 8 Juillet - are doubtful.