Montferrand will rise to the occasion, says Cockerill

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The Independent Online

What is the difference between English Premiership rugby and the rather different game played in the French championship? According to Richard Cockerill, who has experienced a bit of both, it is approximately 40 scrums. If professional sport has always been of educational value to Cockerill - he now appreciates that it is a bad idea to walk into the All Blacks' haka before a Test match, as he did at Old Trafford in 1998, and an even worse one to commit negative thoughts about Clive Woodward to the pages of an autobiography - his learning curve since crossing the Channel two years ago has been almost vertical.

What is the difference between English Premiership rugby and the rather different game played in the French championship? According to Richard Cockerill, who has experienced a bit of both, it is approximately 40 scrums. If professional sport has always been of educational value to Cockerill - he now appreciates that it is a bad idea to walk into the All Blacks' haka before a Test match, as he did at Old Trafford in 1998, and an even worse one to commit negative thoughts about Clive Woodward to the pages of an autobiography - his learning curve since crossing the Channel two years ago has been almost vertical.

"When I played for Leicester, I considered myself a strong scrummager," the celebrated rough-diamond hooker said this week. "Then I went to Montferrand, and found myself in 60 scrums a match rather than 20. At first, I laughed at some of the big, fat units who passed for props in French club rugby. Pretty soon, I was laughing on the other side of my face. They may spend their afternoons walking from scrum to scrum, but as there are so many of them, they don't need to do much else. These days, I feel happy if I hold my own in the set-piece."

Which is not to suggest that Montferrand will concentrate on scrummaging Harlequins off the park in this afternoon's Parker Pen Challenge Cup final at Reading's Madejski Stadium - the scene of the London club's extra-time triumph in the same competition three years ago, when they overcame a mountainous Narbonne side hacked straight out of the Pyrenees. Montferrand are far too classy to favour the route-one approach, even though they have the likes of Cédric Soulette, Olivier Azam and Thibault Privat in their tight five.

"We play better against the better sides," said Cockerill, who starts today's game on the bench and has five more matches before returning to Leicester in a coaching capacity at the end of next month. "When we're up against Toulouse or Biarritz or Stade Français, sides who have a bit of rugby about them, we seem to go up a few gears. When we play the Montaubans and the Montpelliers, teams who turn every game into a shit-fight, we're pretty hopeless.

"I would have liked to have been in a championship-challenging side during my time here, but we've been far too inconsistent. We've been at our happiest playing against good English teams in this tournament, and as our whole season depends on this one game, I think you'll see a different Montferrand to the one that turns up in France every weekend."

The French side certainly have the pedigree to prevail. They won the 1999 tournament, beating Bourgoin, their nearest French neighbours, 35-16, in front of 32,000 spectators in Lyon; more relevantly, they have a back division to compare with anything in Europe. Pierre Mignoni and Gérald Merceron are seasoned international half-backs, while Tony Marsh and Aurélien Rougerie were automatic Tricolore threequarter-line choices during last year's World Cup. With Olivier Magne, certainly the most flamboyant and often the most effective open-side flanker in Europe, also in the mix, the men from Clermont-Ferrand amount to something considerable.

Quins, very much an 80-minute side but short of genuine class at lock and scrum-half, will have to play above themselves to sneak the result that will earn them a Heineken Cup place next season while leaving their opponents facing another nine months of second-tier rugby. "Montferrand have a terrific squad," conceded Mark Evans, the multi-tasking rugby nut who coaches Quins on the days he is not acting as their chief executive. "As a coach, I would love to have their wage bill, although I'm not sure I'd be so keen on it while wearing the CEO's hat.

"They are a more rounded side than Narbonne and pose threats all over the pitch. There again, we're a much better team than we were in 2001 - we have better players, we've been together for longer, we're to be found far higher up the Premiership. Like most finals, this will be about two things: composure and tempo. If we can get our game going early, they'll have to work hard to beat us."

Harlequins: G Duffy; G Harder, W Greenwood, M Deane, U Monye; P Burke, S Bemand; M Worsley, T Fuga, J Dawson, S Miall, J Evans, P Sanderson, A Vos (capt), A Diprose. Replacements: J Hayter, C Jones, J Leonard, W Davison, L Sherriff, S Keogh, A Dunne.

Montferrand: A Floch; A Rougerie, R Chanal, A Marsh (capt), S Kuzbik; G Merceron, P Mignoni; C Soulette, O Azam, D Attoub, H Louw, T Privat, M Raynaud, O Magne, E Vermeulen. Replacements: R Cockerill, L Emmanuelli, E Pearce, M Dieude, A Audebert, J Moreau, S Viars.

Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales).

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