It does not take a rugby genius of Carwyn James dimensions to work out that Toulouse, the only club to win three Heineken Cup titles since the tournament opened for business almost 13 years ago, boast the most lavish attacking resources in Europe. There can be no discussion, no debate, no dispute. So where did they all go, suddenly? When the Frenchmen pitch up at Twickenham for this afternoon's semi-final against London Irish, they will have only one fit back on the bench, together with the orthopaedically challenged Valentin Courrent.
Agreed, it would be stretching a point to weep on their behalf, or organise a whip-round for the poor petals. They still have Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Yannick Jauzion and Cédric Heymans on the roster, along with Maxime Médard, a special talent who played in the French Under-21 side that won the age-grade World Cup a couple of years back, and the ultra-bolshy All Black scrum-half Byron Kelleher. But when a team – even a team as unnaturally brilliant as Toulouse – lose the likes of Vincent Clerc, Clément Poitrenaud and Florian Fritz to injury, not to mention Maleli Kunavore of Fiji and Gaffie du Toit of South Africa, their opponents would have to be face down in the pit of despair not to feel just a touch optimistic about their prospects.
And there is precious little in the way of despondency about London Irish these days. Superbly coached by Brian Smith and Toby Booth with some help from Mike Catt, who has not recovered from calf trouble in time to play an active part on the field, the Exiles believe they are close to breaking into the big time. Victory today would accelerate the process. It would also win them plenty of friends around the Premiership shires, for England would be awarded seven places in next season's elite competition rather than the guaranteed six.
Smith spoke this week of his players' desire to remain true to themselves by giving their opponents – "one of our pin-up teams" – a proper game of rugby, rather than wrestle them into an 80-minute exercise in trench warfare. "We've embraced their spirit," Smith said. "They've said in the past that they like playing us because we're prepared to have a crack, that we go into a match wanting to play rather than fall back on kick-chase tactics. Why shouldn't we take them on? We respect what they do, but their players put on their shorts one leg at a time, just like ours."
Bold words. But for all the personnel problems affecting the former champions in the midfield and back-three areas, it is surely madness to play them at their own uniquely fluid game. Leinster tried it and succeeded two years ago, winning one of the great Heineken Cup matches 41-35 and leaving the field to a standing ovation from the Toulouse public. But they had Brian O'Driscoll performing at his best that day, not to mention a fistful of the celebrated centre's regular partners in the Ireland Test side. London Irish are not quite so blessed, despite Shane Geraghty's burgeoning talent at outside-half and Topsy Ojo's try-scoring momentum on the wing.
Despite Smith's protestations to the contrary, the Exiles' best chance is to blast Toulouse up front. They have the tight-forward firepower – the French side will certainly not fancy Faan Rautenbach, the monstrous Springbok prop, or Bob Casey, that splendidly gung-ho lock from County Kildare – and by picking the hefty Dean Richards play-alike Phil Murphy ahead of the more mobile Richard Thorpe and Juan Manuel Leguizamon at No 8, Irish appear to be planning a direct assault on a rival pack shorn of the clever front-rower Jean-Baptiste Poux and one of the outstanding loose forwards at last year's World Cup, Thierry Dusautoir. Maybe Smith was spinning a yarn all along. He would hardly have been the first.
Tomorrow's tie at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry is, on the face of it, less of a contest. Saracens are recovering fast from years of pie-in-the-sky mismanagement – hats off to Alan Gaffney, who has played an absolute blinder as director of rugby over the last couple of seasons – and their display against the Ospreys in the quarter-final earlier this month was, in its way, fit to set alongside Wasps' famous triumph over Toulouse in the 2004 final. Gaffney spent much of this week talking about his club's search for respect. They earned that respect three weeks ago.
However, it is difficult to see them catching Munster with their pants down. The Irish province are a hard-bitten lot, as Gaffney knows from his own productive association with them, and even if some of their supporters see this as a foregone conclusion – a couple of thousand tickets were returned from Limerick, a clear indication that some locals are saving their money for next month's final at the Millennium Stadium – that kind of arrogance is not to be found in the DNA of Ronan O'Gara or Paul O'Connell.
Bath, meanwhile, host Sale in the last four of the European Challenge Cup. The West Countrymen expect a stiff examination, but the absence of three Test forwards – Jason White, Magnus Lund and Sébastien Chabal – from Sale's pack makes the Recreation Grounders favourites to reach the final for the second successive season.Reuse content