English and Welsh clubs need Lions to shake off lethargy

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The Independent Online

It is an odd time to be talking of player burn-out, the trendy term for the extreme physical and mental fatigue that affects most 40-game-a-season professionals at some stage of their careers. Two months into a new campaign, the big hitters of British rugby should be rosy-cheeked rather than ashen-faced. It is, however, increasingly apparent that last summer's Lions defeat in Australia left many of the tourists in what might be called a right old state.

It is an odd time to be talking of player burn-out, the trendy term for the extreme physical and mental fatigue that affects most 40-game-a-season professionals at some stage of their careers. Two months into a new campaign, the big hitters of British rugby should be rosy-cheeked rather than ashen-faced. It is, however, increasingly apparent that last summer's Lions defeat in Australia left many of the tourists in what might be called a right old state.

Some, like Lawrence Dallaglio of Wasps, are still injured; others, like Northampton's Tom Smith, are plain knackered. And they are the lucky ones. Some of their colleagues are injured, knackered and thoroughly cheesed off as well. John Steele, the perceptive Northampton coach, made the point last week that few Test Lions – indeed, few Lions of any description – are performing at optimum pitch right now. Austin Healey, the Leicester Lip, is one obvious exception, and Richard Hill is playing some fine rugby for Saracens. But few of their colleagues would claim to be in the pink as the two European competitions reach their first watershed moment.

If ever the leading clubs in England and Wales needed their main men to front up, it is now – and yes, that goes for Leicester, who are cast-iron favourites to become the first club to retain the Heineken Cup. The Tigers top Pool One with three straight wins, but they were fortunate to beat Llanelli in the opening round and were not entirely convincing in beating the tournament outsiders and tongue-twisters-in-chief, Ghial Amatori & Calvisano, in Italy. Last week, they very nearly slipped up in Perpignan; indeed, had the much-maligned Italian official, Giulio de Santis, given the outstanding loose head Renaud Peillard a fair crack of the whip, the Frenchmen would have won hands down.

Leicester may deal with Martin Johnson's absence more adequately than England, who seem unable to handle any serious test of character without their captain, but they are not setting too many hearts racing at the moment. Today, the fierce Catalans of Perpignan have another crack at the Midlanders, this time at Welford Road, and according to their very un-Catalan No 8, Phil Murphy, they have the taste for battle. "Last week's defeat was a bitter one to swallow," said the Canadian yesterday. "We dominated the game for 75 minutes, only to see our own mistakes cost us the result. Our problem now is that Leicester know what they are facing. They'll be fired up, for sure."

Not for the first time this season, the champions will be under-strength in important areas – at lock, thanks to Johnson's busted hand, and in the back row, where Martin Corry's hamstring problems have at least opened the door for the former All Black flanker Josh Kronfeld. There is no guarantee that Kronfeld will start today's return contest, however. Neil Back, the new England captain, will return to the run-on XV after serving his time on the bench at Stade Aime Giral last weekend, and may well be joined on the flank by Lewis Moody.

Newcastle, pretty much down and out at the foot of Pool Six, could do both Newport and Leinster a substantial favour by seeing off the Tricolore aristocrats of Toulouse at Kingston Park this afternoon. Don't hold your breath, though. The Frenchmen, knocked sideways by the chemical explosion that laid waste to part of their city in September, are back on song and homing in on a place in the last eight, thanks in no small part to the sensational performances of Frédéric Michalak, their 19-year-old scrum-half. Michalak is in Bernard Laporte's squad for the autumn Test series, so he now has incentive as well as form on his side.

The Geordies are not the only English contenders struggling to stay with the pace. Harlequins and Northampton are on hidings to nothing in France this afternoon, while Wasps will do well to survive their trip to Treviso. The Dallaglio-less Londoners have been a shambles almost from day one, and while Italian sides do not usually expect to win any cross-border match, Alessandro Moscardi's men may well consider taking up football if they spurn this opportunity.

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