French test lies in wait for England's hopefuls

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The Independent Online

The Heineken Cup is big and ugly enough – or to its ever-increasing number of passionate adherents, big and beautiful enough – to stand on its own two feet in the crowded world of cross-border rugby, but in a sense, the road to New Zealand 2011 begins here. Brian Ashton, the England head coach, has well-documented issues with what he perceives as the poor skill levels and the lack of adventure running through the professional club game, but even his sporting tastebuds must be tingling at the thought of a golden generation of red-rose talent discovering new things about themselves in this most captivating of tournaments.

Jordan Crane will start at No 8 for Leicester against Leinster in Dublin this lunchtime; Chris Robshaw, the Harlequins flanker, will be mixing it with the likes of Mauro Bergamasco and Remy Martin in Paris at pretty much the same hour. Wasps, the reigning champions, have picked Danny Cipriani at outside-half for this evening's tête-à-tête with Munster – a game expected to draw more than 20,000 spectators to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry – while the likes of Anthony Allen and Ryan Lamb were given a grow-up-quick run against Ulster in East Belfast last night. Four of that quintet are 21. Cipriani has only just turned 20.

Whichever way the last lingering critics of the top-end club game in England try to cut it, the facts speak for themselves. This time last year, certain Rugby Football Union figures could be heard predicting that no Premiership side would make it to the last four; indeed, some put forward the view that the most bitterly contested club league in the world game would struggle to produce more than a single quarter-finalist. As it turned out, Wasps, Leicester and Northampton fought their way to the semi-final stage, with the first two of them contesting the final.

All the evidence suggests the English will perform strongly again here. But there is no guarantee of 2007-08 following straight on from 2006-07. Clubs like Leicester, who have money to spend but no means of spending it thanks to the current salary cap of £2.2m, fear that those French teams unrestrained on the financial front – the regular "big four" of Toulouse, Stade Francais, Biarritz and Perpignan, plus the nakedly ambitious Clermont Auvergne – will pull away from the field sooner rather than later, and will be joined by such cash-rich concerns as Toulon, Lyon and Racing Metro the moment these second division sides win promotion to the elite Top 14 championship and secure Heineken Cup places ahead of the less well-heeled Bourgoins of this world.

There is also the question of the Swansea-based Ospreys, who appear to be as rich as Croesus. One glance at their side for this evening's meeting with Bourgoin at the Liberty Stadium tells the tale: if they cannot reach the business end of the competition with the likes of Shane Williams, Gavin Henson, James Hook, Justin Marshall, Ian Evans, Alun-Wynn Jones, Marty Holah and Filo Tiatia in their side – not to mention the optional extras, who include the scrum-half Mike Phillips and the loose forwards Jonathan Thomas and Hale T-Pole – they will deserve all the criticism certain to be aimed at them from those many areas of Welsh rugby less blessed with the folding stuff.

All things considered, the English will do extremely well to win more than 50 per cent of their opening-round fixtures. Leicester look powerful, as ever, but the Leinster back-line, featuring southern hemisphere half-backs in Chris Whitaker and Felipe Contepomi and a full hand of sharp Irish attacking runners outside, can be expected to wreak some havoc. Harlequins have a desperately difficult challenge ahead of them at Stade Francais, even though the Parisians are without the electrifying Juan Martin Hernandez. Bristol, who travel to Cardiff Blues tomorrow, also have their work cut out, although the return of the winder-up par excellence, Mark Regan, will add immense value to proceedings.

On the other hand, London Irish should be far too good for Treviso at the Madejski Stadium this afternoon – Peter Hewat, the free-scoring import from New South Wales, makes his Heineken Cup debut – while Saracens are playing too well to countenance serious problems from Glasgow. The question is whether the holders can see off the most committed of European campaigners, Munster.

Three and a half years ago, Wasps travelled to Ireland and just about prevailed in a semi-final classic widely considered to have been the best match in the history of the tournament. The Ricoh Arena is not Lansdowne Road by any stretch of the imagination, but something half as good today will do very nicely thank you.