Quins finally face a tough test in bid for clean sweep


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The Independent Online

Harlequins were truly blessed by the draw for this season's Heineken Cup pool stage – Connacht, the weakest of the Irish teams, and the Italian side Zebre, the weakest team in Christendom, were opponents of which dreams are made. However, they will find themselves thoroughly tested when they chase a clean sweep of victories, together with guaranteed top seeding for the quarter-finals, in the Basque country tonight.

Biarritz still have the faintest of qualification opportunities, and while it is far-fetched to imagine them making the cut as one of two best runners-up, they are throwing the kitchen sink at it anyway. The scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili and the No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, far and away their most influential players, will start the game, as will a fistful of fellow France internationals, including the prop Fabien Barcella and the flanker Wenceslas Lauret.

Quins travel without their own first-choice No 8. No one could decide whether Nick Easter, one of Europe's form players, was struggling with injury or in dire need of a rest but, either way, his place in the middle of the back row will be taken by Tom Guest – no slouch himself, particularly when it comes to speed around the park. Otherwise, the English champions will be at full strength.

A win of the attacking bonus variety will give them 29 pool points from their six matches – a tally matched only by Biarritz, coincidentally enough, in 2007. The Londoners have scored heavily throughout the tournament, averaging 45 per outing, but they will have to go some to emulate Stade Francais circa 2001. The Parisians accumulated almost 300 points in that tournament's group stage.

* Fabrice Estebanez, the Racing Metro centre, has been suspended for four weeks for clouting the Saracens and England wing David Strettle from behind last weekend. At a hearing today, Estebanez was convicted of a "reckless" act.

Meanwhile, the Ireland coach Declan Kidney has named five uncapped players in a 39-strong squad for the Six Nations, including the Ulster outside-half Paddy Jackson and lock Lewis Stevenson. Jamie Heaslip will continue as captain.