Brive set for win-or-bust game

Former European champions hope to relive glory of 1997 against strong London Irish side
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The Independent Online

Brive v London Irish

A dozen years on, it still ranks among the great left-field performances in modern club rugby history.

Brive's astonishing seizure of the Heineken Cup in the tournament's second year took the world and his maiden aunt entirely by surprise and now they are back in the competition after an absence of more than a decade – their fortunes took rather a dive after the double whammy of losing both a mass brawl with Pontypridd in Le Bar Toulzac and the 1998 final to Bath – the European game feels more complete somehow. Will they still by in business this time next month? That rather depends on their performance against London Irish in the Correze this evening.

The French club is but a pale shadow of the late 1990s version: try as you might, you will struggle to find players as good as Alain Penaud, Christophe Lamaison, Philippe Carbonneau and Olivier Magne in the current line-up. But the Heineken Cup means an awful lot to them and, bolstered by last weekend's domestic Top 14 victory over the mighty Toulouse, they will go after the Exiles in a win-or-bust kind of way. Victory will restore their interest in the group; defeat will just about end it.

Shaun Perry, the England scrum-half at the beginning of the 2007 World Cup if not at the end of it, will start for the home side, but there will be more interest from the red-rose point of view in the performance of his opposite number, Paul Hodgson. The Six Nations Championship will soon be upon the national hierarchy and the quicker they settle on their first-choice operator at No 9, the more chance they will have of saving their backsides with a win or two.

Clermont Auvergne v Leicester

A few miles to the north-east of Brive, the aforementioned Leicester will face a serious examination of their own Heineken Cup credentials against a Clermont Auvergne side so strong on paper, it is barely imaginable that they might ever lose in front of their own supporters. Backs as dangerous as Aurélien Rougerie and the Fijian strike runner Napolini Vonowale Nalaga; half-backs as capable as Brock James and the brilliant Morgan Parra; forwards as accomplished as Mario Ledesma and Julien Bonnaire ... French rugby's eternal runners-up (10 championship finals, 10 defeats) really should be winners some time soon.

However, Clermont are not completely bombproof at home – Biarritz beat them at Stade Marcel Michelin just recently – and if any English side knows how to win on the far side of the water, it is Leicester. The Tigers have promoted several players – Alesana Tuilagi, James Grindal, Boris Stankovich, Martin Castrogiovanni and Craig Newby – into their starting formation following last week's Premiership misfire at Wasps.

Harlequins v Sale

Yes, he's back – albeit on the bench. Tom Williams, the "bloodsoaked" star turn in last season's Heineken Cup pantomime, finally returns to the tournament he graced so theatrically after a lengthy ban for what might best be described as illicit activity of the capsular kind. The wing who sparked a long summer of disciplinary investigations and sent Harlequins into meltdown should find himself on the field at some point during tomorrow's game with Sale, and when he appears, it will be a moment of high comedy. For God's sake, Tom, don't bite on anything. Not even your gumshield.

Sale, who will give themselves a chance of knock-out qualification if they win, are missing many of their great and good, including captain Dean Schofield. Much will be expected of the youngsters in their pack – Jack Forster, James Gaskell and Carl Fearns all start – as their back-line looks distinctly useful.

Bath v Edinburgh

Bath, the first English winners of this most sought-after of trophies, will see their campaign collapse around their cauliflower ears if they fail to see off the Scots in front of an increasingly fractious Recreation Ground audience tomorrow. Danny Grewcock's messed-up ribs hardly help the West Country cause – Peter Short replaces the dear old thing in the second row – while Matt Banahan's suspension for stamping relieves them of their one current international back. Jack Cuthbert, another "big unit", fills in.

Edinburgh, much improved on the road, will travel in hope. Their back division includes a batch of active Test players – Chris Paterson, Ben Cairns, Nick de Luca, Phil Godman – and there are few more in the pack. Bath's fortunes being as dire as they are, there is plenty of potential for a turn-up.

The best of the rest ...

Stade Français, as desperate as anyone to win this tournament after a decade of near-misses, are hoping the English element will help them take the final step. Three rosbifs represent the Parisian aesthetes – have you SEEN those shirts? – in Belfast today, where victory over Ulster will make them molten-hot favourites to progress. James Haskell and Tom Palmer are the more familiar of them, but Ollie Phillips, rated less highly by Newcastle than by the England seven-a-side selector, is beginning to score tries.

Toulouse always score tries, irrespective of how they are playing. Why wouldn't they with a back-line including Médard, Clerc, Heymans, Fritz, Jauzion and Michalak, all of whom confront Cardiff Blues in Wales this afternoon? A few miles along the M4, the champions Leinster will have a similarly lethal look about them when they take on the table-topping Scarlets in the evening kick-off. Johnny Sexton, who kicked Ireland to victory over the Springboks, does not feature, but the likes of Kearney, D'Arcy and Nacewa are there, as is some bloke by the name of O'Driscoll.

Meanwhile, the poor old Italians have it coming to them. Northampton should beat Treviso, the best of the Azzurri, comfortably at Franklin's Gardens, but the real points could be racked up by Ospreys in Viadana. The most glamorous of the Welsh regional teams have their share of injuries, but a back-row featuring three capped All Blacks in Jerry Collins, Marty Holah and Filo Tiatia could cause serious carnage.