England would roar again with a team full of Tigers

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The Independent Online

There are good judges who, having seen Toulouse overwhelm Northampton last Friday, believe that if the French club had been substituted for the France national side they and not Wales would have won the Grand Slam in this year's Six Nations Championship. They would certainly not have allowed Wales to come back into the game in the second half as the French side did in Paris. By a similar criterion, given Leicester's performance against Leinster on Saturday, it can be argued plausibly that England would have performed better in the same competition if they had fielded an entire Tigers side.

There are good judges who, having seen Toulouse overwhelm Northampton last Friday, believe that if the French club had been substituted for the France national side they and not Wales would have won the Grand Slam in this year's Six Nations Championship. They would certainly not have allowed Wales to come back into the game in the second half as the French side did in Paris. By a similar criterion, given Leicester's performance against Leinster on Saturday, it can be argued plausibly that England would have performed better in the same competition if they had fielded an entire Tigers side.

Only two or three changes would have been necessary. Daryl Gibson could not have been picked at centre because of his previous appearance for New Zealand - even in these permissive times, such a qualification would be considered inhibiting. Leon Lloyd would have to come inside to replace him, while Austin Healey would be restored to his rightful place on the wing. Geordan Murphy would, alas, have to go. Among the forwards, the Welsh international Darren Morris would give way to the injured Julian White and the likewise incapacitated Ben Kay would resume as Martin Johnson's partner in the second row.

This is only partly a joke. Historically, international teams built around a successful club side have tended not to come off. Even so, there is a serious point involved.

Andy Robinson was there, in his capacity as an assistant to the Lions head coach, Sir Clive Woodward, rather than in his other role in charge of England. There were several candidates for the trip, the squad for which will be announced next Monday, who impressed, and not only Lewis Moody, Martin Corry and, for Leinster, a more subdued trio of Brian O'Driscoll, Malcolm O'Kelly and Gordon D'Arcy.

There were also two players from Leicester who, only a few months ago, would scarcely have been pencilled in to a list for the New Zealand trip: Andy Goode and Ollie Smith. If Goode and Smith are now candidates for the Lions, why were they not thought worth a place in the starting line-up for England only a few months ago? The question suggests some other questions about Robinson's selection policy.

Then there is Neil Back. He is, in my opinion, lucky to be playing rugby at all, having pushed over the referee, Steve Lander, after the Pilkington Cup in 1996. But playing it he is, and very well too. He fell out with Sir Clive, or Sir Clive fell out with him, but that was no reason why Robinson should not have restored him to No 7.

Not for the first time, the locations of the Heineken Cup semi-finals are causing some difficulty. The rules of the competition say that the top-seeded clubs shall have home advantage, but in a neutral ground with a capacity of over 20,000. Here the clubs are Stade Français and Leicester, though I find it somewhat surprising that the latter are seeded above Toulouse. This is not to say that I think Toulouse are set to win their coming semi-final: merely that the official placing is debatable.

Now the way this has worked out is that Stade Français are playing Biarritz at Parc des Princes in Paris and that, at the time of writing, Leicester are playing Toulouse at the Walkers Stadium in Leicester. By no stretch of language can these be described as neutral venues, even though they happen to be in the correct countries.

The Paris club are playing in Paris, in a stadium next door to their training ground. The Leicester club are playing in Leicester, in a stadium (occupied by Leicester City Football Club) to which they intend to move. Under the present rules, the all-French semi-final should clearly be played at Marseilles, Bordeaux or Toulouse. The English-French match could be played at Twickenham or at a football ground such as Old Trafford.

But it is by no means self-evident that the present rules are just. By chance - because two French teams are meeting - it is perfectly fair that one semi-final should be held in France. But why should Leicester justly receive any home advantage at all, even if it ought to be away from Leicester but nevertheless in England. That semi-final should clearly be held at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. And I say this as someone with £100 riding on Leicester at 11-2, odds which have now shortened so that Leicester and Toulouse are joint favourites for the cup.

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