Heineken Cup Preview: Dragons scent blood among Andrew?s walking wounded

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The Independent Online

Just because Jonny Wilkinson is injured - or to put it more accurately, eternally incapacitated - it does not necessarily follow that Newcastle are up a gum tree, even though rugby's great unwashed assume England's outside-half is a one-man team. Real problems kick in only when a club has a dozen casualties ahead of a home game that might reasonably be described as their most important of this or any other season. Sadly for the Tynesiders, their Kingston Park stadium currently resembles a field hospital, with walking wounded hobbling around the corridors in various states of depression. It is not a happy place.

Just because Jonny Wilkinson is injured - or to put it more accurately, eternally incapacitated - it does not necessarily follow that Newcastle are up a gum tree, even though rugby's great unwashed assume England's outside-half is a one-man team. Real problems kick in only when a club has a dozen casualties ahead of a home game that might reasonably be described as their most important of this or any other season. Sadly for the Tynesiders, their Kingston Park stadium currently resembles a field hospital, with walking wounded hobbling around the corridors in various states of depression. It is not a happy place.

Newcastle are 80 minutes away from a ground-breaking qualification for the knock-out stage of the Heineken Cup, but the clinching victory over the Newport-Gwent Dragons tomorrow must seem distant indeed. The Welshmen, thoroughly cheesed off by what they considered to be typical English arrogance in the hours after their defeat by the Geordies at Rodney Parade in October, are pretty much at full strength for this one, and champing at the bit. If their rivals champed on anything just at the moment, they would probably lose their teeth.

Things have reached such a pretty pass that Wilkinson's absence is only one pain in the neck among many. True, Newcastle do not have an outside-half to call their own - David Walder, who has played the pivot role for much of the campaign, is also crocked - and are short of a goal-kicker. But given Newport's rumbustuous, forward-oriented style, they are equally concerned by their lack of a senior tight-head prop. As of last night, Newcastle could not even raise sufficient bodies to fill the replacements' bench. They are, to put it mildly, in a state.

"It's going to be difficult, that's for sure," said Rob Andrew, the director of rugby, who has been involved in an increasingly voluble verbal spat with the Dragons all week. "Newport are a good side who are not at all happy that we beat them down there, so they are coming here to blow us away. That's their approach, so our crowd will have to be an extra man for us. We badly need our supporters to be the noisiest they've ever been."

Should Newcastle fail to qualify - both the Dragons and the momentum-fuelled Catalans of Perpignan could theoretically make the last eight at their expense - English clubs might quite easily fail to win any of the six pools, thereby drawing a blank for the first time in eight appearances at the top table of European rugby. Leicester and Wasps are under severe threat from Biarritz, whose performance at Welford Road last weekend continues to beggar belief six days after the final whistle, while Gloucester need something miraculous to squeeze past Stade Français. With Bath and Harlequins already dead and buried in their respective groups, things are just a little on the bleak side.

There again, only the most churlish Englishman would moan about the quality of this season's tournament. Yet again, the six-pool system has come up smelling of roses, with only one meaningless tie - Bourgoin against Bath in the Lyonnais - amongst the 12 matches. Perhaps the pick of the games is in Biarritz, where Wasps must move heaven and earth to overturn the Basques' advantage in Pool One and leave the qualification door ajar for either themselves or Leicester, who will surely annihilate Calvisano before praying that the outcome at Parc des Sports Aguiléra goes their way.

"If there is too much self-pity on our part, or we start getting wound up by what is going on elsewhere, we could come a cropper in Calvisano, as any team will do if they are not mentally right for the occasion," John Wells, the Leicester coach, said yesterday. "We need Wasps to win without scoring a bonus point, and they have a chance. There again, Biarritz know they are in pole position. It will take a tremendously good performance for Wasps to win out there, but it's not beyond the realms of possibility. This hasn't been called the group of death for nothing."

Should Biarritz, Wasps and Leicester end their six-match programme on 19 points apiece - perfectly possible, given the arithmetic - the Midlanders' heavy try-count will see them through. The smart money, however, supports French progress at the expense of the two best teams in England.

Team News

Harlequins v Munster

(Today 1.0)

Quins' pacey winger Ugo Monye has recovered from a hand injury and makes his first start since early October on the left; Simon Keogh replaces George Harder, who has a dislocated finger, on the right.

Biarritz v Wasps

(Today 3.0)

Wasps' charismatic hooker Trevor Leota is back for his first game since November. Ayoola Erinle starts in the centre, so England's Josh Lewsey moves back out to the wing.

Calvisano v Leicester

(Today 3.0)

Leicester have named the lock Louis Deacon at No 8, so Will Johnson wears No 6 and Lewis Moody switches to the openside, with Neil Back being given a well-earned rest.

Bourgoin v Bath

(Today 5.15)

Bath have taken only 21 fit players to France and the flanker Michael Lipman has to start on the left wing. The hooker David Ward makes way for the returning Lee Mears.

Newcastle v Newport-Gwent Dragons

(Tomorrow 1.0)

The Newcastle scrum-half James Grindal has been selected at outside-half because of injuries and the Academy prop Ed Kalman makes his first-team debut.

Gloucester v Stade Français

(Tomorrow 3.0)

The fly-half Duncan McRae returns for Gloucester and is joined by James Forrester. Olivier Brouzet starts for Stade in place of Mike James at lock.

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