Newcastle's Paris match tempts injured Wilkinson

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The Independent Online

Gordon D'Arcy, Austin Healey, Ben Kay, Victor Costello, Jim Williams, Olivier Brouzet, Colin Charvis, some bloke called Wilkinson... taken together, those cast in the unpopular role of bench-bunny for this weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-finals would make a very decent fist of winning the tournament, given the grace of God and a following breeze. Everyone, but everyone, wants a piece of this competition once it reaches the knock-out stage, which explains why sensible, experienced, grown-up players are willing to risk an awful lot for a run-on part - especially D'Arcy, Kay, Charvis and St Jonny of Tyneside, who have Lions ambitions to pursue.

Gordon D'Arcy, Austin Healey, Ben Kay, Victor Costello, Jim Williams, Olivier Brouzet, Colin Charvis, some bloke called Wilkinson... taken together, those cast in the unpopular role of bench-bunny for this weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-finals would make a very decent fist of winning the tournament, given the grace of God and a following breeze. Everyone, but everyone, wants a piece of this competition once it reaches the knock-out stage, which explains why sensible, experienced, grown-up players are willing to risk an awful lot for a run-on part - especially D'Arcy, Kay, Charvis and St Jonny of Tyneside, who have Lions ambitions to pursue.

Newcastle, who have the thankless task of confronting the million-dollar Frenchmen of Stade Français in Paris this afternoon, insist they have yet to decide whether Wilkinson's knee and Charvis's foot are sufficiently sound to withstand trial by the likes of Sylvain Marconnet, Pieter de Villiers and Mauro Bergamasco. The word on the street suggested Wilkinson's chances were marginally better than those of his Welsh colleague, but as Charvis's hopes were close to zero, it was not saying much. Certainly, none of those travelling to the Parc des Princes from the North-east of England were holding their breath in the hope of seeing either. Yesterday was April Fools' Day, after all.

But the fact remains. When the most compelling club-driven tournament in world rugby enters the realm of sudden death, the very best players shift heaven and earth to force themselves into the mix. Wilkinson, struck down during Newcastle's defeat at Harlequins three weeks ago, remains desperate to feature in the biggest game in his club's history, and the same goes for the rest of the replacement brigade. This burning desire explains Healey's public outburst following Leicester's selection for this evening's wonderfully enticing match with Leinster in Dublin. Players do not like being dropped at the best of times. Being dropped at the worst of times is too much for flesh and blood to stand.

The fact that the Irish province's two principal injury concerns, D'Arcy's troublesome hamstring and Shane Horgan's busted thumb, have improved to the degree that both have been passed fit to play probably darkened Healey's mood further. Horgan, a Lions candidate by virtue of his physical dimensions, will start on the right, with D'Arcy - a Lions certainty if he stays in one piece - among the substitutes. Healey, who played on Leicester's left wing at Leeds last weekend, would have given his eye teeth for the chance to shoot Horgan's fox. Instead, he will start his evening putting a shine on the pine.

Leicester fancy their chances at Lansdowne Road, and with good reason. In tight-forward terms, the hosts are not much to write home about; indeed, they were reduced to their component parts by an under-strength Bath unit at the Recreation Ground during the pool phase. The Tigers, on the other hand, have quality acts in Graham Rowntree and Martin Johnson - not to mention Julian White, who may or may not recover from his latest neck problem to start in the front row.

Yet Leinster still won that game at the Rec, through the brilliance of their midfield backs. "If you let this lot run around, if you give them space, they'll rip you to shreds," acknowledged John Wells, the Leicester coach, during the week. Leinster seem hell-bent on running around, hence their decision to play two former Leicester forwards, Eric Miller and Ricky Nebbett, ahead of the more powerful but less mobile Costello and Emmett Byrne. With Keith Gleeson back on the open-side flank, the Irishmen will attempt to set a fast tempo from the outset.

Stade Français can play like the wind when the mood takes them, though their 40-point defeat in Biarritz last weekend must have left them feeling a little flatulent ahead of today's game with Newcastle. On the face of it, the Geordies do not have a pack capable of mixing it with the Parisians, whose display at Gloucester in the last round of pool games bordered on the sublime. Wilkinson or no, this seems the clearest cut of the quarter-finals.

There is nothing remotely clear-cut about tomorrow's Biarritz-Munster tie, however, despite the crippling casualties among the visiting backs and the Basques' startling eight-match domestic winning streak stretching back to Christmas. Munster, semi-finalists at least for the last five years, know what it is to deliver big performances across the water, and while Biarritz are favoured to win both this match and the trophy itself, an all-Irish international pack spearheaded by the locks Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell is no one's idea of a pushover.

* Worcester have signed the England scrum-half Andy Gomarsall from Gloucester.

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