Has the peculiarly unpredictable world of French club rugby – better described, perhaps, as a parallel sporting universe – finally spun off its axis and landed on its head, like some poor 10-stone wing tipped apex over base by Sébastien Chabal? As the Heineken Cup returns after its two-month break with important matches in Glasgow and Limerick tonight, the question is well worth asking. Why? Because three of the four unbeaten teams come from the far side of the Channel, which is not the way the things are supposed to work.
French sides, from the national XV down, are rarely up to much before Christmas: the best players in the country traditionally need a good four months of competitive activity to shake off the foie gras-vin rouge diet of the close season, with some staying well off the pace until spring. Yet Biarritz, Stade Français and Toulouse are currently in control of their qualifying groups, while Perpignan, who inexplicably lost to the Italians of Treviso in the opening fixture before taking it out on Northampton a week later, will look seriously threatening if they prevail in this evening's mighty set-to with Munster.
Of the other contenders from the Top 14 championship, Clermont Auvergne can play themselves into firm contention with victory over Leicester on Sunday. Not even Brive, defeated twice in October, should be discounted, having struck a vein of form in recent weeks that resulted in victory over Toulouse in the last round of domestic fixtures. London Irish, who visit the 1997 champions tomorrow, know they face a thorough examination.
Yet it may be that the extreme demands of fighting on two fronts will undermine even the strongest of the French sextet, who have been hard at it since the middle of August and could pay the price in the second half of the season. Biarritz, so impressive in the run-up to the start of the Heineken group stage, have just lost three games on the bounce, while Stade Français have won only two in six. Whisper it ever so quietly, but Toulouse themselves are no better than so-so at the moment.
As in England, where the likes of Saracens and Wasps are prospering, some of the form sides across the water – Castres, Racing-Metro and Toulon – do not have the crash and clatter of Heineken Cup rugby to concern them. The difficulties of trying to do it all, well known to the likes of London Irish and Sale (not to mention Bristol, who never truly recovered from their last taste of the European big-time a couple of seasons back), are considerable indeed.
Pool One: Perpignan in peril
Northampton, thriving under the intelligent stewardship of Jim Mallinder, should keep themselves well in the hunt for qualification by taking a bonus-point victory from their meeting with Treviso at Franklin's Gardens tomorrow. Their challenge will be to win equally decisively in the Veneto in eight days' time. Tonight's Munster-Perpignan match at Thomond Park is highly significant: defeat for the French champions, among the more fancied runners for this season's title, will leave them on the brink of an early demise. The Catalans travel at something close to full strength, but Munster know their way round this tournament with their eyes shut. The back five of their scrum looks as formidable as ever and a certain Ronan O'Gara, ditched by Ireland, has a point to prove.
Player to watch Maxime Mermoz (Perpignan).
Marc Lièvremont, the France coach, recently described the young centre as "undroppable". How England wish he was one of theirs.
Pool Two: Gloucester moving on up
Biarritz, the clear leaders, have sufficient Heineken Cup experience to plot a route out of this group without serious trouble, but the Basques are in the middle of one of their funny turns – terrific one minute, entirely hopeless the next – and will not be wholly confident of beating Newport-Gwent Dragons twice in less than a week, especially as the Welshmen are making strides under Paul Turner's direction. Gloucester, like the Dragons, are on a minor high: no longer crippled by injury, their last three Premiership performances have hinted at a sustainable upturn in fortunes. Tonight's trip to Glasgow may be the tipping point: a result at Firhill will give the West Countrymen an even-money shot at qualification. However, the days of Scottish teams lying back and thinking of the glens are long gone.
Player to watch James Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester)
Can the forgotten maestro of English back play remind us of his continuing existence? It would be nice to think so.
Pool Three: Leicester face tough test
Let's put it this way: Viadana will do extremely well to qualify. In perhaps the toughest of the six groups, there will be no clear indication of who stands where until next Saturday night, which marks the end of this pool's intriguing back-to-back tranche of fixtures. By drawing at Leicester in the opening round, Ospreys put themselves in a good place. But a narrow failure in Clermont-Ferrand stopped them sailing merrily into the sunset, and if either Leicester or the powerhouses from the Auvergne emerge from this section with two victories, the argument will continue until the last round of matches in late January. The English champions, struggling badly with injury, may be top of the pile, but they badly need something from their travels this weekend if they are to force the issue after Christmas.
Player to watch Toby Flood (Leicester)
The outside-half is still finding his feet after injury, but has the skills to open up defences at this level.
Pool Four: Edinburgh can pull the plug on Bath
Bath's calamitous form, rooted in their inability to kick the ball well enough for long enough, has given this group a softer look than it had back in October, when the tournament began. Defeat by Edinburgh at the Recreation Ground tomorrow will cook the former champions' goose to an absolute frazzle and leave Steve Meehan, their coach, answering some very awkward questions. With Ulster not frightening anyone either – sometimes the long gaps between Magners League fixtures do no one any favours – Stade Français can see a clear way ahead. The Parisians have lost in Belfast before, most famously in the 1999 semi-final, but they have the players to make sense of the Ravenhill experience this time around. This title remains their principal target, especially as the final will be played on home turf.
Player to watch Mathieu Bastareaud (Stade Français)
The wrecking-ball centre is back in the public eye after causing a diplomatic incident between France and New Zealand last summer when he initially claimed to have been assaulted outside Les Bleus' hotel in Wellington.
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Pool Five: Sale pose questions for Toulouse
Toulouse are up and running, but they had to work hard to beat a Harlequins side struggling to rise above the fake blood scandal that scarred last season's tournament and have yet to put the best of themselves on display in French Top 14 rugby. Their trip to Sale in round six will be seriously interesting if the Englishmen are still in the mix – a realistic possibility if they take the spoils from their own trip to the Stoop tomorrow. Cardiff Blues, semi-finalists last season and deeply unfortunate not to go further, also have much to interest them over the remaining rounds, but they are not in the best of shape domestically and do not have the old Arms Park familiarity to fall back on. Failure against the Frenchmen today will leave them with an awful lot to do.
Player to watch Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues)
His rugby for the Barbarians last weekend was top-drawer. The Blues need Roberts humming from here on in.
Pool Six: Scarlets seek to hold off bruised champions
No one imagined the Scarlets would start this well, and those who saw their desperate performance against Edinburgh a week ago must be struggling to believe it even now. Still, they are where they are, and while it is difficult to see them getting the better of their back-to-back tussles with the reigning champions from Leinster, stranger things have happened. The Dubliners' home defeat by London Irish in the opening round left them chasing the game and if the Premiership side rediscover some early-season swagger and take two victories from their meetings with Brive, the Madejski Stadium will be a riot of noise and colour for the visit of Brian O'Driscoll and company next month. This is a pool of fine margins in which anything and everything might occur. The favourites? Still Leinster, but not by much.
Player to watch Stephen Jones (Scarlets)
The craftsman outside-half from Aberystwyth has the know-how to plot a route into the knockout phase.
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