Richard Cockerill, the director of rugby at Leicester, is under no illusions as to the importance of a Heineken Cup campaign. "The expectation here is that we qualify for the knockout stage," he said at the back end of last season. "If we don't, I'm in sacking territory." Ben Youngs, the Tigers scrum-half whose scintillating form at international level has made him the most talked-about player in England, is not obviously at risk of an early P45, but yesterday, he was feeling the weight of expectation, too.
"It's not just this year, but every year," he said. "The club expects us not only to qualify for the quarter-finals, but to kick on from there. So do the supporters, and so do the players themselves. We can't countenance going out at the pool stage."
Midway through the round-robin group programme, Leicester are in a decent position to make the cut, despite their defeat in Perpignan last weekend. But if the Catalans do another job on them in the return match on Sunday, all bets will be off. "It's a big, big game for us," Youngs conceded. "We're anticipating a really hard physical test, because both teams have lost a game now, and in this competition, you really can't afford to lose more than one.
"Visiting Perpignan was quite an experience. They call it a bearpit for a reason, and the moment you hear their crowd getting behind them with such passion and intensity, you think to yourself: 'This is a really tough place to play rugby.' It's probably a unique environment – if you ask me, they're all barking mad down there – but we have a fantastic supporter base ourselves and we'll draw on that this weekend."
Leicester may be the only club to retain the European title – Martin Johnson's side won in 2001 and again in 2002 – but the real pioneers of continental rugby were Bath. They too have a must-win match this weekend, against Ulster at the Recreation Ground, and if they slip up, their survival chances will be close to zero.
There is a chance that Luke Watson, the Springbok back-rower who captains the side, will be fit. It may even be that another South African, the World Cup-winning outside-half Butch James, will play his way onto the team-sheet after months of injury frustration. James' shoulder gave way in August and he has not been seen since, but he has resumed contact training in recent days.
"We want Butch back, of course we do," said the Bath skills and defence coach Brad Davis. "But he's been out a long time and we don't want to risk him. If Butch plays, it will be because he's 100 per cent. We'll take it day by day and make a judgement on whether he's fit and well."Reuse content