England's six-pack can make it to party

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The Independent Online

World Cup years are both a curse and a blessing when it comes to English club performances at the top end of the European game. Eight seasons ago, after red-rose fortunes had been drop-goaled into oblivion by the ever-so-holy Springbok outside-half Jannie de Beer and his "Boot of God", only two Premiership clubs made it into the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, and it was something of a shock when one of them, Northampton, found a way to scoop the jackpot. In 2003-04, after the night of nights in Sydney, things unfolded in similar fashion: just two in the last eight; ultimate victory for Wasps.

This time, the blessing looks like coming before the curse. Of the seven English contenders in the Heineken Cup, only Harlequins are out of the running as we head into the second half of the group phase. London Irish and Saracens are well set for knock-out qualification, although the Exiles face an absolute pig of a fixture in Perpignan this afternoon. Gloucester, the most exciting team in the country, are having most things their own way in Pool Two. Bristol, unranked and unrated at the start of the tournament ... well, they're in there scrapping, bless them.

If we take it that at least one of the two traditional heavy-hitters, Leicester and Wasps, will survive the initial cull, there could easily be a record five Premiership sides left in the shake-up. And then what? Toulouse will win the trophy, of course. (Well, they are the most gifted side in the competition, by a country kilometre).

It is Leicester's misfortune to be paired with Guy Noves's team of all the talents this time round.

The Tigers beat the favourites at Welford Road last week, but the weather was in their favour, and Toulouse full-back Clement Poitrenaud was in one of his generous moods.

Tomorrow, down there in the Midi-Pyr*es, things are likely to be just a little more testing.

Certainly, the veteran French international lock Fabien Pelous sees it this way. "Last week was the first half of our big game with the Tigers," he said. "Our goal is to win the second half while stopping them taking a bonus point. If we manage that, we will have won the contest. Leicester were full of power up front at Welford Road and while we tried to take them on in that area with a strong scrum, we had problems at the line-out. It turned on a few little things, some small mistakes by us, but now, all the pressure is on them. Why? They are coming to Toulouse."

Wasps, who must beat Clermont Auvergne in High Wycombe this evening if their defence of the title is to remain a realistic proposition, will be relieved to see a visiting team shorn of the likes of Marius Joubert, Gonzalo Canale, Thibaut Privat and Julien Bonnaire, although the Frenchmen can still afford to leave on the bench two of the more striking performers at the recent World Cup: the Fijian wing Vilimoni Delasau and the Argentine hooker Mario Ledesma.

Champions Wasps have not selected the England captain Phil Vickery, who is on a disciplinary charge following a stamping incident in the reverse fixture last weekend.

London Irish, who won a fractious home game against Perpignan in the last round, will have their work cut out in the return.

The Catalans have Percy Montgomery, the Webb Ellis Trophy-winning Springbok full-back, among their number, and also have the benefit of an Italian referee who may struggle to keep a lid on proceedings. Perpignan are spoiling for a fight if looks could have killed at the Madejski Stadium six days ago, there would have been a massacre and must fancy their chances of having one.

Gloucester used to be known for that sort of thing, but their operation is much more legitimate these days. Some of their rugby this season has been breathtaking Ryan Lamb, Anthony Allen and James Simpson-Daniel are among the most captivating performers around and with Lesley Vainikolo, the outsized wing from 13-a-side land, back between the shafts after compassionate leave, they are fully equipped to smithereen the hapless men of Bourgoin all over Kingsholm.

Gloucester's nearest and dearest, Bristol, are big favourites to complete a comprehensive two-leg victory over Harlequins, and set up a mighty day out against Stade Franais in Paris next month. The Memorial Grounders have made two changes in the back row for tomorrow's game: Andrew Blowers has been ill and is replaced by Dan Ward-Smith; Joe El Abd steps up for the injured Alfie To'oala. It should not make a blind bit of difference. Bristol have plenty of momentum in this competition; the Londoners have plenty of nothing.

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