Leeds find encouragement in Toulouse travails

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This time last week, Phil Davies was gently preparing his Leeds team for a "potentially painful experience" in the great rugby city of Toulouse. Yet it is the Frenchmen, the reigning European champions and probably the most successful club in the northern hemisphere, who are hurting.

Tonight's Heineken Cup pool match at the 20,000-capacity Stade Ernest Wallon is a must-win occasion for Fabien Pelous, Frédéric Michalak and company, while their visitors from the English Ridings can afford to cop a hiding and still retain ambitions of a place in the knock-out phase.

"We've already played our joker in this tournament," said Pelous, the rugged old warhorse of the French second row and one of the holders' two joint captains. "Our defeat at Edinburgh last weekend has thrown everything up in the air. I believe we are capable of reacting in the right way, but there is no more room for error. This is a very important match for us."

If that makes Davies nervous, it is with good reason. When Toulouse are hot, they do not generate any old heat, but go molten on the opposition. Michalak may have finished on the losing side at Meadowbank on Sunday, but his brilliance in creating a first-half try for Yannick Jauzion was there for all to see. The new warrior-poet of the Tricolore game is in the middle of a purple patch, as Gordon Ross, his opposite number tonight, acknowledged.

"When Michalak plays well, the great players around him tend to play well," said the Scot, who played for Edinburgh in this competition before heading south with the excellent idea of hardening up his act in the Zurich Premiership. "Toulouse are so formidable at home; this is, without doubt, the biggest game of our regular season. I actually spoke to some of my old Edinburgh colleagues, asking them not to wind up the champions before our trip across the Channel. I don't think it quite worked out as I'd hoped."

Leeds, who took a memorable first step at the top level of European club rugby by beating the Neath-Swansea Ospreys at Headingley last weekend, will give themselves an even-money chance of progressing from their group if they take a point or more from either this evening's game or their trip to Edinburgh on 9 January.

They can afford to leave two international backs, Phil Christophers, of England, and Matt Cardey, of Wales, on the bench, having seen their hand strengthened by the return to fitness of Dan Scarborough, one of a new generation of threequarters with an eye on an international career.

Sale are also in France this weekend - they play Biarritz at Parc des Sports Aguilera tomorrow evening - and must attempt to build on last Saturday night's narrow victory over Cardiff without their human engine, the former Scotland scrum-half and captain Bryan Redpath, who has shoulder problems and will not be risked. Nick Walse plays in his stead, while Matt Cairns takes over at hooker from the highly rated Andy Titterrell.

There are no such personnel problems at Wasps, whose visit to the under-powered Italians of Calvisano tomorrow looks so straightforward that several London-based luminaries - Lawrence Dallaglio, Josh Lewsey, Simon Shaw, Craig Dowd and the exciting new back-rower from Ireland, Jonny O'Connor - are resting up for sterner tests ahead. But Joe Worsley will play. The thumb injury he suffered against Perpignan last week was no more than a simple dislocation.

Meanwhile, Jonny Wilkinson is planning a return to the day job on Sunday when Newcastle play the second leg of their Parker Pen Challenge Cup match against Valladolid. Wilkinson should make it through without too much trauma, for his side hold a 61-point advantage from the the first leg.

* The South African Rugby Football Union has cancelled an independent investigation into alleged racism within the Springbok team but said a government commission will undertake a broader inquiry. An inquiry into specific alleged incidents will now be handled by a SARFU committee.

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