Scarlets and Tigers ready to conjure up minor classic
Scarlets v Leicester
Two Heineken Cup semi-final victories – the first of them a close-run thing, the second not close in the slightest – indicate that Leicester, the most pragmatic club in English rugby, understand how to beat Scarlets, the great romantics of the game in Wales, on the big occasion.
But neither of those matches were played in Llanelli. Only once have the Premiership champions ventured into Carwyn country on European business, and on that occasion in 2002, they finished a distant second.
It was not that Leicester were poor that year: in fact, they were good enough to win the trophy, meeting Llanelli for a third time in the competition at the last-four stage and winning by a point before squeezing out Munster in the final. The Welshmen were – and are – a seriously awkward proposition on their own mudheap, even if the mud at the Parc y Scarlets Stadium does not possess the magical properties associated with the old Stradey variety.
Tonight's game could be a minor classic: both sides will fancy their chances of a place in the knockout stage if they win; both will be on the point of elimination if they lose. The Tigers travel without their full-back and captain, Geordan Murphy, but are in the happy position of being able to call on a replacement as accomplished as Scott Hamilton. As for the Scarlets... well, they need to find a scrum from somewhere. Humiliated in the tight at Welford Road in October, they must hold their ground here if attacking talents as potent as Regan King, Stephen Jones and the exciting young scrum-half Tavis Knoyle are to get involved.
Glasgow v Wasps
It is the Londoners' good fortune that they find themselves in the most lopsided of this season's pools. No group featuring Toulouse can be said to be easy, but with quarter-final places reserved for the two best runners-up, Wasps must be thanking their lucky stars that they were also drawn alongside Glasgow and Newport-Gwent Dragons.
The Scots can be a pain in the rear end at Firhill, but having forgotten to register the international No 8 Johnnie Beattie – oops – and lost Max Evans to injury, they have now decided to rest the highly effective breakaway forward John Barclay for tomorrow's fixture, which is as dead as a dodo from the home side's perspective. If Wasps, armed with a hardened back-row unit of Joe Worsley, Serge Betsen and Andrew Powell, do not leave with the spoils, they will kick themselves all the way back to Acton.
London Irish v Ospreys
Ospreys might also apply boots to their own backsides if they foul up in Reading tomorrow afternoon: after all, London Irish have not won a game in any competition since late October. However, the loss of Andrew Bishop to injury does not help their cause. (The international centre has ankle issues and may be out of commission for two months, which is bad new for Wales, too.) The Exiles have been out of the qualification running for some time, but are still in a mood to wreck their visitors' chances. There were signs at Saracens last weekend that some of the younger players, in particular the eye-catching prop Alex Corbisiero, are finding a little form and it will be no great surprise if this comes down to a single score either way.
Bath v Aironi
Bath have been behind the eight-ball since they made the brilliant tactical decision not to drop a match-winning goal against Biarritz on the opening weekend, and even when the Basques defied all rugby logic by losing to Aironi in round three – the new Italian side had lost all matches in all competitions until that point – it was of more help to Ulster than to the West Countrymen. Still, the Recreation Grounders should not be too inconvenienced this afternoon. Not that it's likely to matter much.
Leinster v Saracens
Mathematically speaking, Saracens are just about alive; realistically, they are six feet under. Even if they had been right there in the mix, they would not have travelled to Dublin with any great confidence. Brian O'Driscoll and company are playing some terrific stuff, and have the look of semi-finalists about them.
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