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Heineken Cup: Toulon test for Baxter’s boys as Harlequins battle to stay alive


If Morecambe and Wise had been blessed with Premier Rugby’s sledgehammer sense of timing, the celebrated Andre Previn sketch would have been about as side-splittingly funny as a David Cameron one-liner.

On Thursday night, the English clubs confirmed their intention to boycott next season’s Heineken Cup. Less than 48 hours later, we have a run of cross-border fixtures that might have been specifically designed to show the long-suffering paying public exactly what they will be missing come next October.

Where to begin? Exeter-Toulon at Sandy Park this lunchtime seems a decent enough departure point. Last term the Devonians were taught the mother and father of a lesson by a brilliant Clermont Auvergne side in which the back-row forward Julien Bonnaire produced a performance that was nothing short of majestic. Today, the outfit who somehow beat Clermont in the final – Toulon – make the same trip. It will be fascinating to see just how much Rob Baxter’s team learnt in the process of being skinned alive 12 months ago.

The reigning champions from the Cote d’Azur are leaving nothing to chance: they are travelling with World Cup finalists coming out of the cauliflower ears, from Alexis Palisson, Bryan Habana and Matt Giteau outside the scrum to Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams and Juan Smith in it. Oh yes, almost forgot…some bloke by the name of Wilkinson will be leading them from outside-half.

Harlequins, hanging in there by the last layer of tooth skin after narrow defeats by Scarlets and Clermont, will not expect to progress to the knockout stage if they fail to beat the mega-wealthy Racing Métro in Paris this afternoon, but with Chris Robshaw and Nick Easter restored to the back row, they may just fancy their chances. There again, Racing have Juan Martin Hernandez, “le Maradona du rugby”, at full-back and the in-form Wenceslas Lauret – aka the “good king” – on the blind-side flank.

Northampton, the hot-shots of the Premiership campaign to date, will also have their work cut out, even though they are on home soil at Franklin’s Gardens this evening. Leinster, three-time champions and bristling with determination to make the English pay for their uppity rugby politics, cross the Irish Sea with a fistful of Test Lions, including Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll, Sean O’Brien and the skipper Jamie Heaslip. Expect nothing less than a full metal jacket affair.

Yet perhaps the top of the bill contest will unfold at Welford Road tomorrow, where a Leicester side just beginning to emerge from the dark tunnel of an injury crisis of unprecedented proportions, take on Montpellier – the most bewitchingly unpredictable side in France. The visitors, coached by the former Tricolore scrum-half Fabien Galthié, have some exceptional talent at their disposal, not least at half-back, where François Trinh-Duc and the much talked-about Jonathan Pélissié will attempt to shape the game. They also have the mighty Georgian forward Mamuka Gorgodze in their starting line-up, and those Leicester men who confronted him at the last World Cup in 2011 will remember every hair on his bullet head.