Howard hopes for Leicester heroics to bring down Wasps

Pat Howard, the former Wallaby midfielder whose welcome return to Leicester in a coaching capacity has coincided with a perpendicular upturn in the Midlanders' performance levels, is thinking in terms of a nine-point haul from two Heineken Cup pool matches over the next eight days.

To meet this target, his side will have to win both games and secure a bonus point for good measure - no easy matter at the best of times, and a challenge of insane proportions given the identity of the opposition. Assuming Howard has mislaid his fixture list, it is only fair to remind him that tomorrow's game is at Wasps.

That's right: Wasps, the reigning Heineken champions and inheritors of Leicester's mantle as the outstanding club side in Europe. They rarely lose once, let alone twice, so Howard's challenging comments this week will have done much to concentrate the thoughts of Lawrence Dallaglio, Josh Lewsey and the rest of the Buckinghamshire-based glitterati. The two clubs will meet again eight days from now, this time at Welford Road, and it is reasonable to suggest that if either of them emerge from the rubber with as many of nine points, they will be piping hot favourites for the 2005 title.

According to Dallaglio, the sheer volume of current and recently-retired international players on view tomorrow puts the contest "on a par with many Test matches". He is not far off the mark, if at all. The very top end of the representative game continues to place extreme demands on the protagonists, as the England-Australia and France-New Zealand meetings underlined last weekend, but the best Heineken Cup action is only a fag-paper's width away in terms of intensity. And between Wasps and Leicester in their respective pomps, the difference is rather less than that.

"To be honest, we probably need to win both games, and get at least one bonus point as well, just to get ourselves through the pool," Howard said, reflecting on the fact that Leicester's serious misfire at Biarritz in October left them positioned tight behind the eight-ball. They lost 23-8.

"That Biarritz game is gone. We played badly, so we have to deal with it, learn from the experience and move on. We know we can get two victories out of these games, but we have to turn up and play. A lot of it comes down to the preparation beforehand, the chess game before the rugby game. We'll need a 'Plan C' as well as a 'Plan B'."

Of the five other English sides, Newcastle have the look of potential quarter-finalists about them. They have an away win in the locker - due reward for toughing it out against the Newport-Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade on the opening Saturday of the competition - and their deeply resourceful performance against Perpignan in the second round has left them far better placed to extend their European participation beyond the pool stage than they were in 2001-02, when they lost five of their six group matches. Edinburgh at Kingston Park? It should be a doddle.

"We have a big chunk of momentum going for us," agreed Jamie Noon, the centre who once again finds himself on the fringes of the England team after a series of hard-running performances in the Falcons' midfield, "and Edinburgh have not played as well as they would have liked in this competition."

So what's new? The Scots did find their way into the quarter-finals of last season's tournament, an unexpectedly good performance that gave the organisers an excuse to award this term's final to Murrayfield - a leap of faith in kilted rugby if ever there was one.

However, Edinburgh are now back in the mire after taking a hiding in Perpignan and losing a tight one at home to the Dragons. Their prospects are more bleak than a bad winter's day on the Pentland Hills.

Poor old Cardiff are every bit as bad, if not worse, so Gloucester will fancy their chances of registering a bonus-point victory at Kingsholm this evening.

They will almost certainly need to do likewise at the Cardiff Arms Park next weekend if they are to beat Stade Français to the automatic qualifying place from Pool Six.

Team news

Treviso V Bath (Today; 3.0)

Mike Tindall, Danny Grewcock and Steve Borthwick return for Bath. Jonathan Humphreys (heel) and Zak Feaunati (fractured eye socket) are out.

Northampton V Toulouse (Today; 3.0)

Steve Thompson and Ben Cohen are back for Northampton after England duty. Paul Grayson and Corne Krige return from injury. Bruce Reihana is out (hamstring)

Gloucester V Cardiff (Today; 7.30)

Gloucester welcome James Simpson-Daniel back from injury and Henry Paul, Andy Gomarsall and Andy Hazell from England duty.

Wasps V Leicester (Tomorrow; 3.0)

The Wasps hooker Trevor Leota is out but Josh Lewsey and Joe Worsley return. Leicester have George Chuter back. All their England players except Ben Kay start. Seru Rabeni (knee) is doubtful.

Neath-Swansea V Harlequins (Tomorrow; 3.0)

Will Greenwood returns at centre. Mel Deane drops to the Harlequins bench. Ugo Monye is with the England Sevens team in Dubai.

Newcastle V Edinburgh (Tomorrow; 2.30)

Still no Jonny Wilkinson for Newcastle. Hall Charlton replaces James Grindal at scrum-half. Cory Harris is not registered for Europe.

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