Wasps face a Herculean task to stifle talents of Toulouse
Wasps v Toulouse
It would have been a very long shot at the best of times. Under these circumstances, it will have to be rugby's equivalent of the "shot heard round the world".
Wasps, twice European champions, need a bonus-point victory over Toulouse at Adams Park tomorrow just to give themselves a mathematical chance of qualifying for this season's quarter-finals, and even then they will need favours from people across the continent. Oh, one other thing: the Frenchmen are taking this every bit as seriously as the hosts, even though they have already secured a place in the knock-out stage.
Toulouse are the most successful club in the history of the Heineken Cup, having won the title on four occasions – twice as often as anyone else. They are also the most lavishly gifted team in the northern hemisphere, and as most of those gifts will be on public display in High Wycombe – Clement Poitrenaud, Vincent Clerc, Yannick Jauzion and Maxime Médard have all been selected, and that's just the backs – the chances of a ho-hum Wasps outfit running riot around the Home Counties are just a little on the remote side.
The Londoners are, of course, the architects of their own downfall, having messed up big time in Glasgow last weekend, and it may well be that by the time this final pool-stage game kicks off, other results will have left them dead and buried. Still, where there's life, there's hope. Tony Hanks, the director of rugby, has picked the strongest combination available to him, with four members of England's squad for the Six Nations – the scrum-half Joe Simpson, the prop Tim Payne, the lock Simon Shaw and the flanker Joe Worsley – at the heart of it.
Leicester v Treviso
Leicester, another champion club of yesteryear who once lost a Heineken Cup final to Wasps, are much better-placed then their old rivals. For one thing, their pool has yet to be won; for another, they are playing the Italians of Treviso, who, for all their multiplying virtues, will enter Welford Road in the way Christians once entered the Coliseum.
Martin Johnson, the England manager who twice lifted this trophy on behalf of the Tigers, will be hoping and praying that the injury count is low, or preferably non-existent. Toby Flood, Ben Youngs, George Chuter, Dan Cole and Louis Deacon will all be involved tomorrow as the Midlanders go in search of the victory that will nail a last-eight place, and if George Skivington shapes up in the middle of the line-out, he may well join that quintet in the red-rose squad.
Castres v Northampton
Northampton, the sole English representatives in last season's knock-out stage, have done even more things right this time round, to the extent that a win in France this afternoon will guarantee them a home quarter-final. It is far from a foregone conclusion, however: Castres, always a challenge on home soil, have yet to lose to anyone at Stade Pierre Antoine this term.
"We'll be asked questions all over the field," acknowledged the Saints director of rugby Jim Mallinder. "They'll be very competitive, whoever they put out." As it happens, a Northampton side shorn of both Courtney Lawes and Chris Ashton will come up against a Castres pack featuring the one-time All Black flanker Chris Masoe, the outstanding Uruguayan forward Rodrigo Capo Ortega and the Scottish line-out specialist Scott Murray.
Biarritz v Bath
Bath, the first English winners of this tournament, did their level best to be the first ones out of the current competition by fouling up against the Basques in the most brainless imaginable fashion back in October. Remember the brilliant decision not to drop a winning goal at the last knockings? Let's put it another way: who could forget it?
They have a chance of redemption down on the Franco-Spanish border this afternoon, but not much of one. Biarritz, narrowly beaten in Belfast a week ago, are still favourites to qualify and the strength of their starting line-up – Damien Traille, Dimitri Yachvili, Imanol Harinordoquy, all mod cons – suggests that the West Countrymen might be in for a long 80 minutes. If only they'd done things differently three months ago...
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