The brave new regionalists of Welsh rugby have five professional squads to select and sign before the start of next season – five teams, but only four chief coaches. Gareth Jenkins of Llanelli, a one-club servant with a worldwide reputation as a master of the game's tactical and motivational arts, is the human equivalent of a done deal, and has been since the radical re-structuring of the sport in the Principality was little more than a twinkle in a committee-man's eye. The merest suspicion of a move to replace Jenkins as the divine ruler of Stradey Park would mean blood on the streets of Carmarthenshire.
Tonight, Stradey will open its gates to another capacity crowd of 10,800 for the first of this season's Heineken Cup quarter-finals – a plum match against the fierce Catalans of Perpignan. The locals expect victory and a third élite European semi-final in four seasons – Llanelli have played host to 13 French teams down the decades and won on each occasion – and with Scott Quinnell in full warpaint (the old boy plays about one game in three these days, but it tends to be good) they start as clear favourites.
Jenkins, however, is acutely conscious of the threat posed by Olivier Saiset's side, a team powered by an out-sized front five boasting class acts in Marc Dal Maso and Rimas Alvarez Kairelis. "This is a massive game for the club," the coach said yesterday. "If we are favourites, it is only because we have home advantage. There are no bad teams left in the tournament and I would certainly place Perpignan among the best eight sides in Europe. We have played them three times in this competition, twice last season, but they seem to me to pose a different threat now."
To a large extent, this new threat revolves around Manny Edmonds, the former Wallaby outside-half who gave the Lions all the grief they could handle during their 2001 tour of Australia. He and another player who could hardly be less Catalonian if he tried – the raw-boned Canadian No 8 Phil Murphy – have the ability to make Llanelli sweat, and are very definitely up for the contest. "Llanelli's record in Heineken Cup rugby makes them a reference point in the European game," said Murphy. "This will be a battle, for sure."
Llanelli will play Robbie McBryde, a Lions tourist two years ago, at hooker for the first time since early January. He is one of 14 internationals in the starting line-up – Barry Davies, the full-back, is the odd man out – and there are another three on the bench: the wing Mark Jones, the scrum-half Guy Easterby and the prop John Davies. Perpignan have named seven Test players in a 22-man squad, including the Tricolore backs Pascal Giordani and Jean-Marc Souverbie.
One of club rugby's biggest weekends continues with the Toulouse-Northampton and Leinster-Biarritz quarter-finals tomorrow – combined audience, 75,000-plus – and the sell-out tie between Leicester and Munster on Sunday.Reuse content