Europe pushes back frontier

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The Independent Online

The Zurich Premiership has been a bit flat, the Welsh/Scottish League has been reasonably enjoyable, but it is the European Cup which has really caught the eye so far this season. The format is settled now and the competition is proving to be a significant step up from domestic rugby. It's a great stepping-stone for the young players, because it gives them the opportunity to taste top- quality rugby before they reach the heights of the international game.

The Zurich Premiership has been a bit flat, the Welsh/Scottish League has been reasonably enjoyable, but it is the European Cup which has really caught the eye so far this season. The format is settled now and the competition is proving to be a significant step up from domestic rugby. It's a great stepping-stone for the young players, because it gives them the opportunity to taste top- quality rugby before they reach the heights of the international game.

British clubs can be proud of their achievements last week-end, but there is still a lot of work to do if our teams are to qualify for the next stage. Saracens are the team to catch at the moment. François Pienaar has got them playing some excellent rugby, and I can see them challenging on all fronts this season. Everyone at the club will be on a tremendous high after winning in Toulouse last week.

Having defeated one of the great sides in Europe in their own back-garden, the players will be full of confidence. Their forwards are going well and they've got that little special spark in Thomas Castaignÿde. As for the other guys in the back line, they are all playing out of their skins at the moment because they know there is a certain Mr Tim Horan waiting in the wings.

Saracens are in prime position to qualify, while the other sides in Pool Three will have to play catch-up from now on. Ulster cannot afford to turn up at Vicarage Road today thinking they are going to lose, but this is basically going to be a damage-limitation exercise for the Irish.

Following their heavy 54-28 defeat at Swansea last week, Wasps have no choice but to win at L'Aquila today. Losing away from home was not fatal, but it is the fact that they were defeated so heavily which is worrying, particularly in the first match of the competition. Their front five were destroyed and Nigel Melville's team were cruelly exposed for pace out wide. I don't think they'll have any serious problems defeating L'Aquila, but this is an opportunity for them to score quite a few points and they must take it.

After a shaky start to the season, Gloucester seem to have sprung into life in the last couple of weeks. They got a terrific result last weekend against Llanelli and that might just be the win that kicks off their season properly. They have a good coach in Philippe Saint-Andrÿ, and a good squad.

Most of all, though, they have Jason Little. The former Wallaby has made a real impact since he recovered from injury a fortnight ago. You sensed Gloucester needed that little bit of inspiration lately, and now they've got it. Roma will be no pushovers, as they gave Colomiers a fright before losing 14-5 eight days ago, but I fancy the Little men to win.

Despite what some people might think, I believe the Glasgow-Leicester match is going to be a close one. After a stern test against Pau last week, the Leicester players would have preferred an easier game today. But the draw means Dean Richards' men have to travel up to Scotland. The English champions won 46-18 against the French, but they will be tired and anxious not to slip up.

Glasgow, though, are improving all the time. They will have been disappointed to lose to Pontypridd last week, particularly as they are higher than them in the Welsh/Scottish League standings. Despite the setback, I expect the Scots to be quietly confident they can cause an upset. Glasgow are slowly turning the corner, which is encouraging, because we need all four home nations pushing for honours.

We're not quite up to southern-hemisphere standards yet, but the fact that England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland are producing better teams is exciting for the future of the game in the northern hemisphere.

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