French gear up for powerful assault on Heineken Cup

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The Independent Online

England's leading teams have found the Heineken Cup something of a trial in recent seasons – two victories in eight years, both of them secured by Wasps, is not the record the Premiership fraternity thought would be theirs when the likes of Bath, Northampton and Leicester were ruling the roost either side of 2000. Worryingly for them, the challenge in Europe will be greater than ever this season, thanks to the financial muscle being flexed by the French, the pulling power of life in the Irish provinces, the increasingly rich concentration of talent in Wales and the sharp improvement in Italy's domestic structure.

The 24 teams confirmed their squads this week: a maximum of 38 players, 10 of whom must be front-rowers. Toulouse, the reigning champions, named no fewer than 25 full internationals, only to be outdone by Clermont Auvergne, who won their first French title last season and have serious designs on Europe this time round. Positively awash with money, they have 29 capped players among their number. If Jean-Marc Lhermet, the coach, is wondering what to do with them all, he would rather have his problems than those affecting clubs on this side of the Channel.

No English side – not even Leicester – can break the 20 mark, and some, like Northampton, Saracens and London Irish, are struggling to get close. Compare this to Ospreys, who will have 26 internationals at their disposal when the tournament begins next month. Or to Cardiff Blues, who have 23 with Test experience.

Both Leicester and Munster are into the twenties, with Ulster, now bolstered by South African imports, closing in fast. Even Treviso, the strongest of the two newly strengthened Italian "super clubs", can match Toulouse for international numbers, if not quite for quality.

Last season saw the worst English performance in Europe since 1996, when the Rugby Football Union reached its belated conclusion that the Heineken Cup was properly pukka and finally sanctioned entry by member clubs. As Saracens and London Irish, two of three form sides in the country, are in pools that look suspiciously like "groups of hell" – the former must find a way past two strong French sides in Clermont Auvergne and Racing Metro while the latter have the joys of Munster, Ospreys and Toulon – it may be that things will get worse before they get better.

Perhaps the most intriguing of tonight's Magners League matches sees Cardiff Blues on the road in Italy. Their meeting with Treviso, whose victory over Leinster last weekend shook the competition to its foundations, is nobody's idea of a gimme, and despite the injury problems affecting the No 8 Xavier Rush, the Welshmen will travel with a strong pack including Gethin Jenkins and Fa'ao Filise in the front row.

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