Gloucester ring changes after Forrester injury

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The Independent Online

Andy Robinson could have predicted that something else would go wrong. One moment, the England coach was being assured that Mathew Tait, the Newcastle centre, stood a fighting chance of recovering from a torn muscle in his thigh in time for the perilous meeting with the All Blacks tomorrow week; the next, he was being informed that Gloucester's James Forrester, a hot tip for a first international start at No 8, had pranged a knee and might miss out altogether. Forrester is due to have a scan on Monday. By the time he receives the results, the New Zealanders may be back in Auckland.

This much is certain: the quickest loose forward in the English game will not be facing the hatchet-faced tough nuts of Agen in this afternoon's big Heineken Cup game at Kingsholm. As the West Countrymen have also lost Andy Hazell, their highly accomplished open-side flanker, to a "stinger" injury in his neck - both men suffered their setbacks during last week's defeat by Leinster in Dublin - their pack looks very different to the one that served them so well through the first five rounds of Guinness Premiership matches.

Jake Boer, that grizzled old campaigner from Springbok country, plays on the side of the scrum, with Luke Narraway, just turned 23, in the middle of the back row. Happily for the director of rugby, Dean Ryan, who badly needs a victory today if he is to have any hope of surviving one of the many groups of expiration in this season's elite European tournament, the tight five have experience coming out of their ears. Christian Califano, Mefin Davies, Carlos Nieto and the magnificent Marco Bortolami are all in situ, with Olivier Azam and Patrice Collazo on the bench. Each and every one of them know what it is to scrap for their lives in a highly charged atmosphere, so the visitors from the Perigord-Agenais, yet to win away from home this season, will have their work cut out.

It is difficult to know what to make of the French (now, there's a thing). Toulouse, the only club to win this title on three occasions, were spectacularly hopeless in Belfast last weekend, to the extent that their 30-point defeat merited a steward's enquiry. Bourgoin were very nearly as bad in losing to Cardiff Blues - hell will freeze over before they make any sense of this competition - while Biarritz played for the first half before handing the second over to a thoroughly flummoxed Northampton. Castres played Wasps off the park, but still contrived to lose; Perpignan and Stade Français revealed nothing of themselves in recording straightforward victories away from home against ho-hum opposition.

We will learn more about these two over the next 36 hours. This afternoon, Perpignan face Wasps at Stade Aime Giral, the scene of a blood-curdling ruckus three seasons ago. The Catalans will field their principal hard-heads - Michel Koniek, Nicolas Mas, the captain Bernard Goutta - while the Londoners travel without the man who knows most about them, Raphael Ibanez. The French hooker played for Perpignan in 1998-99 and understands the way they think. Unfortunately, he injured himself playing against Castres, another of his former clubs.

Phil Vickery is on duty, though, and as befits a prop forward raised in Cornwall, he is licking his lips. "It will be a very intimidating atmosphere, so we will need to be streetwise," he said yesterday. "It doesn't come much harder than Perpignan away, but you live for games like this one. It will be a battleground." Donal Courtney, the Irish referee, will need eyes in the back of his head, and an extra lung for all the whistling he has ahead of him.

Stade Français, meanwhile, face buoyant Welsh opposition in the shape of the Ospreys, who did an injury-time job on Sale in the first round of matches and now have Gavin Henson back in the pivot position of stand-off. "The whole team showed guts and determination to pull that win out of the bag - other teams would have given up, but we just kept going," enthused Lyn Jones, their head coach. "We beat one of the best teams in Europe and didn't even play very well. It's not often you can say that, and there is at least another 25 per cent to come from us."

As Jones conceded, he could do with that 25 per cent materialising this afternoon. The Parisians are ridiculously strong in the personnel department - their bench bunnies include the brilliant young outside-half Lionel Beauxis and the former Pacific Island Wallaby, Radike Samo, not to mention the exciting Argentine full-back Ignacio Corleto. No one fancies themselves quite like Stade Français, not even Mr Henson. This one should be played on a catwalk.

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