French brilliance to pose ultimate test for Swansea

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The Independent Online

If all is fair in love and war, today's Heineken Cup matches in Cardiff, Swansea, Pau and Colomiers should positively glow with mutual righteousness, albeit of an unusually violent kind. There is no greater love-hate relationship in the world game than that between the French and the Welsh - the poetically inspired Tricolores refer to these incendiary meetings as " les mêlées fantastiques", while their great rivals from the valleys describe such matches as "a touch on the warm side". For those who like their rugby in the raw, heaven is beckoning.

If all is fair in love and war, today's Heineken Cup matches in Cardiff, Swansea, Pau and Colomiers should positively glow with mutual righteousness, albeit of an unusually violent kind. There is no greater love-hate relationship in the world game than that between the French and the Welsh - the poetically inspired Tricolores refer to these incendiary meetings as " les mêlées fantastiques", while their great rivals from the valleys describe such matches as "a touch on the warm side". For those who like their rugby in the raw, heaven is beckoning.

You do not require an agent provocateur's sense of mischief to predict fun and games before bedtime - the statistics speak for themselves. Of the 20 players either sent off or cited after the event in European Cup matches between 1995 and the end of last season, 50 per cent of them perpetrated their misdemeanours in matches between French and Welsh clubs.

All the truly scandalous matches have involved teams from the two countries - the Swansea-Castres humdinger in 1995, the Brive-Pontypridd riot in '97, the Ebbw Vale-Toulouse ruckus in '98, the Richard Nones gouging match between Ponty and Colomiers last season.

England, Ireland and Scotland have a clean charge sheet in Heineken Cup rugby. By contrast, the French began the current campaign with nine sendings-off or suspensions [we can now make that 10, following the dismissal of the Pau prop, Pierre Triep-Capdeville, at Welford Road last weekend]. The Italians made a rush towards parity last season and are now just four sendings-off adrift.

The Welsh, meanwhile, can claim a very healthy five. And today, the men from the red corner meet the men from the blue corner in four of the biggest games of the pool stage. Before the off, the Cardiff-Toulouse contest at the Arms Park looked by far the most meaningful of the quartet, and there will indeed be a five-figure audience for this evening's re-run of the first Heineken Cup final. By the same yardstick, Ponty's visit to Pau also has a whiff of gunpowder about it. The Sardis Road boyos are on a final warning from the tournament organisers after repeated "incidents" on the road and, as a result, the visitors have been confined to barracks this evening.

Llanelli, badly stung by Gloucester at Stradey Park eight days ago, must beat Colomiers in the suburbs of Toulouse to stand any realistic chance of making a third successive appearance in the last eight. However, the game of the day is clearly at St Helen's, where the French champions of Stade Français will look to build on their 90-point demolition of L'Aquila last weekend.

Mike Brewer, the former All Black flanker who coaches L'Aquila, sees Christophe Juillet's side as the quality act in this season's tournament. "There is no doubt in my mind that Stade Français are the best club team in Europe," he pronounced. Yet Swansea are a 50-point victory over Wasps to the good and running hot; Andy Robinson, the England coach, described last weekend's victory over the Londoners as "the best club performance I've seen from anyone for 18 months".

The All Whites have a liberal sprinkling of the most gifted footballers in the competition - Geraint Lewis at loose forward, Mark Taylor and Scott Gibbs in midfield, the frequently mesmeric Arwel Thomas at outside-half - and, perhaps more importantly still, they have belief. "Many of us have a massive personal incentive to do well in this competition, and to do well now," said Gibbs, the captain. "Our immediate objective is to get through this month unbeaten, because we face tough trips to Paris and London in January."

Swansea have flattered to deceive at this level ever since they first entered Europe in 1995. There was, however, nothing flattering about the victory over Wasps. "They got on top up front and ripped us to shreds," said Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps captain this week. If they can do something similar to the best team in France this afternoon, the world will be their oyster.

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