Weekend Preview: Richard Cockerill warns Tigers to be ready for Toulouse travelling better
There is still no light at the end of the Heineken Cup tunnel, which may turn out to be longer, and darker, than the one running under the Swiss Alps.
Neither the Anglo-French axis nor the Celtic bloc have tabled a proposal worth considering during talks to end the deadlock that threatens the tournament's existence after next year – a salient point, given how the climax of this season's pool stage has reminded us just how well the existing format serves the professional club game in Europe.
While the Celts have suggested expanding the competition to accommodate 32 teams – plain daft – the English and French contingent want the numbers reduced to 20, which makes a little more sense but is too easy for opponents to dismiss as an exercise in self-aggrandizement. The current 24-team, six-group system continues to deliver, despite the complexity of the arithmetic involved.
There has been an unusually predictable air about much of the tournament to date, yet when this weekend's action began in Biarritz and Galway tonight, only three of the 12 fixtures were "dead".
Over the weekend, Munster, Leicester and Montpellier will all chase victories that might conceivably push them past Saracens, Toulouse and Toulon and take them into the quarter-finals as pool winners, while a fistful of others are seeking knockout qualification as one of two best runners-up – a mechanism that has worked well for the last 13 years.
Understandably, most of the preparatory chin-wagging has concentrated on Sunday's game at Welford Road, where a sell-out crowd of 24,000 will watch Leicester attempt to wrest the Pool 2 honours from Toulouse, the most successful club in the tournament's history. Richard Cockerill, the Tigers' rugby director, said in the week that his two injured England players, the centre Manu Tuilagi and the hooker Tom Youngs, would be fit to play, and so they are. Both have been named in the starting line-up.
"Toulouse haven't been travelling well, but we know they turn up on occasions like this," Cockerill said, aware that the four-time champions would be crossing the water in full warpaint.
"I have great respect for them. If you look at what's been happening in Toulon these last few seasons, it's clear they feel they can achieve success by throwing money at it. They may be right: by simply going out there and buying what they want, they may be great for the next 50 years. But Toulouse, and now Clermont Auvergne, have gone about it differently, by growing year on year – by developing a strong culture and a strong infrastructure and building on it from within. I think that's a good approach."
Leinster, the reigning champions, visit Exeter this evening in the disconcerting knowledge that their fate rests in the hands of others. The Dubliners have picked their strongest side, with Brian O'Driscoll at centre and a liberal sprinkling of luminaries in every other area of the side, from Isa Nacewa and Jonathan Sexton in the back line to Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip up front. But not even a bonus-point victory is guaranteed to keep them in the hunt for a fourth title in five years.
Perhaps the most significant game will be played this afternoon in southern France, where Montpellier host Toulon in Pool 6.
A win for the home side, who are extremely useful on home turf, would have all manner of ramifications elsewhere and the presence of the outside-half François Trinh-Duc, the Scotland back-rower Johnny Beattie, the Argentine hooker Agustin Creevy and the mighty Georgian forward Mamuka Gorgodze in the side suggests they will give it a lash.
Not that Toulon are travelling light. A decision-making axis of Frédéric Michalak at scrum-half, Matt Giteau at inside centre and some bloke called Wilkinson between them is none too shabby, especially as it is supplemented by the brilliant Maxime Mermoz in the No 13 role. Up front, they have Andrew Sheridan and Simon Shaw from the England pack that reached the 2007 World Cup final, an All Black loose forward in Chris Masoe and a hot-shot flanker in Steffon Armitage. And so on, and so on. Scary.
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