It has been a rough European campaign for the Premiership fraternity: the prospect of two places in the knock-out stage of the elite Heineken Cup, a marginal improvement on last year, must be balanced against another miserable showing in the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup. Yet the English could still salvage a little of their self-respect over the final weekend of pool matches, and Saracens will set the tone if they front up against Clermont Auvergne, the French champions, at Vicarage Road tonight.
"We aspire to be among the likes of Leinster and Munster, but we're pretty new to the Heineken Cup, which is an unforgiving competition," admitted Mark McCall, the Ulsterman who took over the day-to-day running of Saracens business when Brendan Venter returned to South Africa for family reasons earlier this month. "This has been a pretty steep learning curve."
Yet Saracens will at least come out smiling, as opposed to laughing, if they prevail this evening against a side still hoping a place in the last eight might be theirs. The Watford-based club might easily have beaten Leinster, one of the favourites for the title, in an early pool match at Wembley, and produced a performance of considerable courage to spike the guns of Racing Metro in Paris in round four. Success against Clermont might not make a material difference, but it would be good for the soul.
Unfortunately for McCall, injuries have kicked in. Steve Borthwick, the captain, is at the top of a casualty list that also features Alex Goode, Michael Tagicakibau, Hugh Vyvyan and Gavin Henson. However, the American full-back Chris Wyles returns after a month spent nursing a fractured cheekbone and there are starting places for some of Saracens' big-name players: the wing David Strettle, the hooker Schalk Brits, the flanker Kelly Brown and the fast-developing young stand-off Owen Farrell.
For their part, Clermont have decided against going full tilt for a bonus-point victory. They have a useful team – Marius Joubert, Alexandre Audebert and Elvis Vermeulen are nobody's fools – but the biggest hitters are on the bench. Thomas Domingo, Alexandre Lapandry and the powerful Aurelien Rougerie will play a part if the foundations laid by the starting line-up are good enough.
Leinster, who have already won Pool Two, could not be taking their visit to Racing Metro more seriously, but then, they have a home quarter-final to secure. The Dubliners have Gordon D'Arcy back in midfield – he missed last week's impressive victory over Saracens because of a strained calf muscle – and with Jonathan Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll named in the starting combination, there is no doubting the intent of the 2009 champions.
"I was asked six months ago how many points would win this group and I said it might be 15 – three wins and a few bonuses," commented Joe Schmidt, the Leinster coach, whose players have already accumulated five wins and 19 points. "I'm delighted with where we are. Now, it's a matter of keeping our feet on the ground and not wasting this opportunity."
On the international front, the Wales management received the news they were dreading yesterday when Ospreys confirmed that Adam Jones, the form tight-head prop in world rugby, would miss the entire Six Nations with an elbow injury suffered during his club's Heineken Cup defeat at London Irish five days ago. "The scans have confirmed our suspicion of significant ligament damage and soft tissue trauma," said Chris Towers, the Ospreys head physiotherapist. "We've discussed the case at length, both with orthopaedic specialists and the Welsh Rugby Union's medical team, and expect Adam to be out for around eight weeks."
A lay-off of that duration will take Jones well beyond the final Six Nations match in France on 19 March, and with his fellow Lions front-rower Gethin Jenkins also out of commission, Wales have real issues ahead of their meeting with England a fortnight today. Paul James and Duncan Jones, two more Ospreys props, are loose heads who know their way round the Test arena, but in the crucial tight head position, the Red Dragons are in Old Mother Hubbard land.
Two players announced their retirements yesterday. The Cardiff Blues and Newport Gwent Dragons flanker Robin Sowden-Taylor, who won eight caps for Wales, has packed it in at 28 to pursue other ways of making a living while Richard Skuse, the Saracens prop, has called it day at 30 after failing to recover from a neck injury.Reuse content