'Barking mad' Mas will test Leicester's set-piece savvy
Leicester v Perpignan
When the England scrum-half Ben Youngs described Perpignan as "barking mad", he could have been talking of the team, the crowd, or both.
They were brave words in any event, and would have been braver still had he addressed them directly towards the Catalan front-row unit, which can reasonably claim to be the scariest in Europe. Leicester, no mugs themselves when it comes to the dark arts, found life extremely difficult at close quarters during last weekend's game down near the Spanish border and there is no guarantee things will be any easier at Welford Road tomorrow afternoon.
By selecting the local hero Nicolas Mas, the cornerstone of the France pack, alongside the tough Romanian hooker Marius Tincu and the itinerant New Zealander Perry Freshwater (who once served in the trenches at Leicester), the Perpignan coaches have made a statement of intent. They might have rested Mas, as they have held back the free-scoring full-back Jérôme Porical, for the big Top 14 Christmas match at Clermont Auvergne, but somewhere in the back of their collective mind, they believe they can win this game with another commanding set-piece performance.
Leicester remain in control of Pool 5, but the balance of power will shift decisively if they fail to subdue Mas and cramp the style of the brilliant centre Maxime Mermoz, back in the visitors' starting line-up after injury. The Tigers have named the England prop Dan Cole on the bench, which is where he finished last week's defeat after being substituted.
Cardiff Blues v Northampton
Last Saturday's fractious set-to at Franklin's Gardens featured more sledging than an Ashes Test, so it is no surprise that both clubs have named unchanged sides for tomorrow's return leg. Players who fall out with each other one week are always desperate for another go sooner rather than later, and in the modern rugby age, chances do not come along much sooner than this.
These are dangerous waters for the Midlanders, who have won all three of their pool games to date without looking comfortable in any of them. Their forward effort in the first game was persuasive enough, yet it was the Welshmen who looked the more dangerous away from the scrums and line-outs. With the Lions Test centre Jamie Roberts involved for the first time this season – he will be on the bench, having recovered from a serious wrist injury – the Blues must fancy their chances of arguing their way back into the debate.
Bath v Ulster
Another high-class midfielder will make his first appearance of the season in the shape of Butch James, the World Cup-winning Springbok outside-half. His return to a misfiring Bath side for the must-win encounter with Ulster, who have beaten the West Countrymen three times in a little over a year, should make a difference, although it will be asking a bit much of him to perform at optimum level after so long a break.
Every bit as significant is the absence of the brilliant Stephen Ferris from the Ulster back row and Olly Barkley's move to outside centre. If Bath lose, they are pretty much gone for another season. No pressure, then.
Toulon v London Irish
It is difficult to see the Exiles turning the tables on a Toulon side who beat them with something to spare in Reading six days ago, even though Jonny Wilkinson is being rested by the French club for today's return. His replacement, Felipe Contepomi, is hardly the worst player in the world, and with the Wallaby maestro George Smith added to the back row to operate alongside the majestic Joe van Niekerk, everything points to a no-shock result.
Wasps v Newport-Gwent Dragons
While the Londoners have lost Tom Rees to injury once again they have every chance of progressing from a group boasting Toulouse and precious little else. The task facing the Dragons, the weakest of the Welsh regional sides, will not be made easier by the return to the Wasps squad of Riki Flutey, who missed England's recent internationals with a calf injury.
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