Heineken Cup: Leicester need to ruffle Ospreys' feathers amid chill economic winds
It should be one of the premium games of the Heineken Cup pool stage: Leicester, two-time European champions desperate to revisit past glories, against Ospreys, dangerous underachievers who have an unerring knack of getting on the Midlanders' nerves.
Tomorrow's rumble at Welford Road has a different feel about it, however: with both sides going public over financial concerns this week, there will be as much talk of filthy lucre as there is about the big tight-head battle between Dan Cole of England and Adam Jones of Wales.
In advance of this weekend's Welsh Rugby Union general meeting in Port Talbot, one of Ospreys' non-executive directors has been painting a very bleak picture of future prospects for the regional game west of the River Severn. "We're looking down the barrel of a gun," warned Mike Cuddy, a familiar figure in union circles down Swansea way. "Who wants the Welsh football scenario to be replicated in Welsh rugby, where having an international player ply his trade inside the Principality is the exception rather than the rule – where the top tier of domestic competition is so far removed from international level that it attracts only a few hundred supporters?
"Where will we be in, say, five years? It's all well and good the governing body making big profits, but what will it profit them if there is no professional rugby in Wales worthy of the name outside the international tier? Without a plan, led by the union, it's guaranteed our top players will not stay in the country. Alas, the only plan I see at the moment is that there's no plan."
Yesterday, Leicester reported a "disappointing outcome" – their phrase – in publishing a financial report for 2011-12. Turnover fell by more than £2m and the operating loss ran into seven figures. While these problems, largely to do with outsourcing of merchandising activities and the acute difficulty of doing business during a World Cup year in the teeth of an economic downturn, were predicted, there is no denying that England's best-supported club are feeling the pinch.
They will feel it even more if they fail to see off a strong Ospreys outfit, armed with an all-international pack featuring players as capable as Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans and the hot-shot flanker Justin Tipuric. By drawing a blank in Toulouse last weekend, Leicester are already behind the game. Nothing less than a clear victory in this one – that is to say, a win that denies the Welshmen so much as a losing bonus point – will suffice.
The home side are going with an unchanged starting line-up, so the No 8 Thomas Waldrom must do another turn on the open-side flank – a high-risk strategy, given Tipuric's abilities as a pure breakaway. Cole's performance will be critical: not just because he must nurse an inexperienced hooker in Tom Youngs, but because Adam Jones, his opposite number, is also his principal rival for a Lions Test berth in Australia next summer.
Exeter, their confidence bolstered by a fine performance against the champions Leinster, have drafted in the Wallaby lock Dean Mumm for tonight's visit of Clermont Auvergne. Unfortunately for the Devonians, the resourceful effort in Dublin has not escaped the notice of the ambitious Frenchmen, who will arrive in full warpaint. As Clermont's back division looks really scary – Morgan Parra and Brock James at half-back, Wesley Fofana and Aurélien Rougerie in midfield, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga on the wings – an Exeter victory would be the most remarkable result in their history. Given their recent exploits, that's saying an awful lot.
Harlequins are taking no liberties with their trip to Connacht, where defeat last season cost them a knockout place. Ugo Monye, Nick Evans and Joe Gray are injured, but everyone else is present and correct for tonight's match. Sale, meanwhile, have taken the predictable step of recalling Danny Cipriani, their match-winner six days ago, to the starting line-up for tomorrow's tough game in Montpellier.
As for Saracens, they break new ground – both geographically and metaphorically – by taking on the Parisians of Racing Metro in Brussels today. They prefer the ultra-dependable Chris Wyles to David Strettle on the wing, a decision that marks the American's 100th game for the club.
Heineken Cup: Weekend fixtures
Saracens v Racing Metro 92 (4.40pm, Sky Sports 1) Pool 2 Treviso v Toulouse (1.35pm, SS1) Pool 3 Biarritz v Zebre (6pm) Connacht v Harlequins (6pm, SS1) Pool 5 Scarlets v Leinster (1.35pm, SS1) Exeter v Clermont Auvergne (6pm, Sky Sports 1)
Munster v Edinburgh (12.45pm, Sky Sports 2)
Leicester v Ospreys (3pm, SS2)
Cardiff Blues v Toulon (12.45pm, Sky Sports 2)
Montpellier v Sale (3pm, SS2)
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