Murphy's lead lifts Leeds for Perpignan cauldron

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The Independent Online

It comes to something when Leeds, who barely knew how to survive a game of unisex tag rugby at the start of the campaign, have a better chance of making the last eight of the Heineken Cup than Wasps, three-time Premiership champions and winners of Europe's élite title as recently as 2004. Nobody actually expects Leeds to qualify for the knock-out stage - they risk life and limb at Perpignan this evening, an experience that should remind them of the realities of life with the big boys - but then, precious few anticipated their victory over the Catalans at Headingley last weekend.

At least the Yorkshiremen know what is coming to them today, and in rugby, perhaps more than in any other walk of life, it is good to be forewarned and forearmed. Chris Murphy, their 29-year-old lock, will lead the side in surroundings that are wholly familiar to him, having played for Perpignan a couple of seasons back, and he saw no sense in sparing his colleagues the gory details in recalling his time at Stade Aimé Giral.

"I see it as very similar to the Boulevard in Hull, where I used to watch rugby league as a kid," Murphy said. "The supporters are right on top of the players when they come out of the tunnel and if you're one of the opposition, you certainly know you are in the away team and not welcome there. It is an incredible place to play. The Perpignan supporters are very passionate about their club and what it represents in their lives, but they also have very high expectations of the team and will probably be expecting a comfortable victory. We have to ensure we rise to the occasion."

Only four English sides have won a match in European competition down on the Spanish border, one of them being Rotherham, of all clubs on God's earth. As Murphy played in that one-point victory five years ago, there may be something in the heavens that gives Leeds an edge this time round. There again, it beggars belief that Perpignan will be the recipient of a second shaft of lightning from the broad acres. Leeds will probably go the way of Wasps after all.

Cardiff Blues, on the other hand, have a genuine chance of overturning the French favourites in this group. They conceded five tries in Perpignan earlier in the competition, but secured winning bonus points against Leeds at home and Calvisano away. What is more, they have recently introduced to their mix a fairly substantial ingredient by the name of Jonah Lomu, and a Lomu-sized victory over the Italian outsiders at the Arms Park this afternoon will add a certain something to their home game with Perpignan on 14 January.

Back on the subject of Wasps, who have relegated the likes of Matt Dawson and Ayoola Erinle from their line-up following last week's dismal defeat at Stradey Park, tomorrow's return match with Llanelli Scarlets sees them in the Last Chance Saloon, draining the last dregs from their final pint with police officers waving ASBOs at them from the pub door. Indeed, their captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, has given up on this tournament, and while they would confidently expect to beat the Welshmen at High Wycombe under normal circumstances, the fact they are all but dead shifts the balance towards their emotionally-charged visitors.

Come to think of it, there is no shortage of old-fashioned Welsh hwyl about this weekend's proceedings. Simon Easterby, the Scarlets captain, joined his coach Gareth Jenkins in complaining about the lack of credit their team received in respect of last Sunday's win, while Gavin Henson, never one to hold back on the opinionising, believes Leicester fiddled their way to victory over the Ospreys with some undetected chicanery at the breakdown. Needless to say, the Tigers are somewhat impatient to renew acquaintances with Henson on the outksirts of Swansea.

The outcome of the Leicester-Ospreys group is devilishly difficult to predict, especially as Stade Français made the biggest statement so far by winning at Clermont Auvergne last weekend. Defeat for the Tigers tomorrow would be catastrophic.

Heineken Cup team news


(Today, 5.30pm)

Perpignan have left out centre Christophe Manas from a 25-man squad. Leeds lock Chris Murphy replaces Stuart Hooper. Scottish internationals Gavin Kerr and Gordon Bulloch return to the front row. Roland Reid comes into the back row. Nathan Thomas starts at openside.


(Today, 1.0pm)

Ben Johnston comes in to the centre for the injured Kevin Sorrell, while back row forward Taine Randell is on the bench. Andy Farrell is ruled out with a back spasm. Ulster are unchanged from the side that beat Saracens 19-10 last weekend.


(Tomorrow, 1.0pm)

Ospreys are unchanged. England prop Graham Rowntree is on the bench and certain to get some playing time. Ireland lock Leo Cullen replaces England's Louis Deacon, who drops to the bench, in the Tigers' second row.


(Tomorrow, 3.0pm)

Joe Worsley suffered a knock for Wasps and John Hart replaces him on the blindside. Alistair Mckenzie is at loosehead. Mark van Gisbergen takes over at full-back from Josh Lewsey, who moves into the centre. Eoin Reddan comes in at scrum-half for Matt Dawson, who is dropped to the bench. Llanelli are unchanged.