Hill's steep task hints at high price of first-round failure

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The Independent Online

The Heineken Cup pool stage is meant to be a proper campaign rather than a series of do-or-die struggles, but a number of teams – some rather grand, like Leicester and Munster and Llanelli Scarlets – are in must-win territory already.

All three of those heavyweights were reminded last weekend of the profound issues surrounding the winning of a serious game away from home; even Toulouse, who did win on the road, were given the heebie-jeebies by Edinburgh.

Leicester, who lost in Dublin, welcome the Scots to Welford Road this afternoon and mark the arrival of Marcelo Loffreda as a hands-on coach. Munster take on Clermont Auvergne in Limerick – the Springbok captain, John Smit, starts for the French side, as do his countryman Marius Joubert and a couple of Fijians, one going by the name of Vilimoni Delasau – while the Scarlets host Wasps at Stradey Park. Defeat for any of the home sides would all but knock them out.

Bristol, with no great designs on making it through, are also up against it, having frittered away a lead in Cardiff last weekend. Tomorrow they take on the ante-post favourites, Stade Français, at the Memorial Ground, expecting something approaching a sell-out crowd. They can at least make life awkward for the Parisians.

Matt Salter, the captain, and Nathan Budgett, a first-choice line-out man, will be missing. Salter never goes too long without suffering an orthopaedic calamity of some description – the ferocity of his tackling leaves him at constant risk – while Budgett fractured a cartilage in his windpipe at the Arms Park six days ago. Ouch.

"It's a big blow," said Richard Hill, who has brought Roy Winters in at lock, Dan Ward-Smith into the back row and restored David Lemi, the diminutive Samoan, to the wing. "We were forewarned that when you play these big Heineken Cup matches, the intensity leaves you open to picking up injuries. Lo and behold, in the first game we play we lose two players."

Still, it could have been worse: Christophe Dom-inici, Lionel Beauxis, Rodrigo Roncero and Juan Martin Hernandez will not be on duty tomorrow.

London Irish will rate their chances of qualification if they manage a result away to the Newport-Gwent Dragons this lunchtime – the spine of their side, with Peter Hewat at full-back, Mike Catt and Peter Richards at half-back, David Paice at hooker and Juan Manuel Leguizamon at No 8, is extremely useful. Saracens will discover everything they need to know about themselves at Biarritz, who have a back division featuring Nicolas Brusque, Ashwin Willemse, Damien Traille and Dimitri Yachvili.

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