Hard-knock life on the road but travellers fancy their chances

Weekend Preview



Heineken Cup


There are knock-out games, hard knock-out games, and knock-out games that involve winning away from home: a feat so difficult at the elite end of European rugby that it would be easier to make sense of Andrew Lansley's health service reforms while reading the proposals in Sanskrit.

There have been 56 Heineken Cup quarter-finals to date, only 13 of which have been won by visiting sides – and well over half of those victories were recorded in a frenzied period of formbook-bashing between 2002 and 2006.

Yet the travelling teams this weekend – Leicester, Toulon, Toulouse and Ulster – all fancy their chances, particularly the first three. It is not that their opponents are pushovers: Brian O'Driscoll and his fellow Leinstermen are a fierce proposition in Dublin, as the English champions have acknowledged all week, while Perpignan and Biarritz, who host their fellow French Top 14 outfits, generally find a way of prevailing in front of their Catalan-Basque followers.

Indeed, Perpignan may be the most motivated of all the contenders, having finally realised the long-held ambition of taking their uniquely abrasive brand of rugby across the Spanish border and into the football-crazed environs of Barcelona.

However, Toulon will take some very heavy artillery to Messi-land: Jonny Wilkinson starts at outside-half, behind a back-row unit – Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, George Smith, Joe van Niekerk – boasting all the talents. Meanwhile, Toulouse will field a back division to die for when they make their own trip into Spain for tomorrow's meeting with Biarritz in San Sebastian. Even without Frédéric Michalak, Yannick Jauzion and Rupeni Caucaunibuca in the starting line-up, the holders look well capable of carrying the day.

Leicester, denied the front-row services of the suspended Marcos Ayerza, will cross the Irish Sea with Boris Stankovich at loose-head prop – Martin Castrogiovanni, the shaggy-haired folk hero from Italy via the Argentine pampas, must make do with a place on the bench – and prefer Jordan Crane to the New Zealander-turned-Englishman Thomas Waldrom at No 8. For their part, Leinster are at full strength, give or take the odd long-term injury.

Northampton, forced by local politics to shift their tie to Milton Keynes, have no fitness issues whatsoever – quite something, given the ingrained reluctance of the selector-in-chief Jim Mallinder to nurse players through a campaign by introducing a rota system. All the big names, from Ben Foden and Chris Ashton to Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes, start against the men from Belfast.

Amlin Challenge Cup

The decision to add fall-out teams from the Heineken Cup at the knock-out stage has beefed up the second-tier competition no end. Clermont Auvergne, the crack French side, are already in the last four, and there is every prospect of one of European rugby's major players, Munster, joining them today. Ronan O'Gara and company must win in Brive to progress, but the Frenchmen are nowhere near the force they were when they suddenly appeared from the back of beyond to win the main tournament 14 years ago. Doug Howlett, Keith Earls, Donncha O'Callaghan and David Wallace all start for the Irish province, which suggests they're taking this seriously.

Aviva Premiership

For the second time in six days, Leeds find themselves in do or die territory. Victory over Newcastle at Kingston Park today will lift the Yorkshiremen off the bottom of the table and leave the Tynesiders 12th of 12 with only four matches remaining, all of them horribly difficult. Unsurprisingly, Leeds keep faith with those who chiselled out a lifesaving win over Exeter last Sunday. Jeremy Manning, fit after injury, returns for Newcastle at full-back.

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