Whatever it is that makes the Heineken Cup tick - the unmistakable whiff of sulphur accompanying a really big match like the one between Cardiff Blues and Munster at the Arms Park tomorrow; the partisan spirit of the spectators drawn to this afternoon's London Irish-Ulster "derby" at the Madejski Stadium; the appearance of the girls from the Moulin Rouge ahead of this weekend's fascinating struggle between Stade Français and Sale in Paris - the game's dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists are right to fear it. The one undisputed fact in a sport riddled with uncertainty is that this competition has razzle-dazzled its way past Test rugby in the hearts and minds of the public.
There was precious little sense of emotional lift-off during last month's international programme, especially in the two biggest markets, England and France. Was there ever so dolorous a sporting arena as Twickenham during November? If there was, it was to be found on the outskirts of St Denis, where the Tricolores did pretty much everything in their power to reduce interest in their own World Cup rather than increase it.
The contest for round three's top-of-the-bill fixture has been intense, but the meeting between Fabien Galthié's super-swanky Parisians and Philippe Saint-André's reigning English champions just about shades it. Sale may be in pieces on the orthopaedic front, but their ambition is undiminished and they will fight bitterly to leave with something ahead of next week's return match at Edgeley Park. Tomorrow's tête-à-tête at Parc des Princes is a 45,000 sell-out. Who claimed professional club rugby would never stand on its own two feet?
Stade Français lose home Heineken Cup games on a once-in-a-blue-moon basis, and it requires something more than a leap of faith to foresee a team boasting Christophe Dominici, Juan Martin Hernandez, Sergio Parisse and the Bergamasco brothers waving Jason Robinson and company through for the tries that might revive a Sale campaign badly undermined by a last-second defeat in Wales on opening night. Yet six points from these two games would keep them alive into January, when they might expect to pick up another nine. They may not be looking terribly well, but they are not quite dead.
London Irish will certainly be six feet under if they falter against Ulster in front of another substantial audience. It is what might be called a green-letter day for the Exiles, given that this is their first competitive fixture against a province from back home since the dawning of the professional era, and they go in with eight internationals on the field and another four on the bench, including the South African prop Faan Rautenbach and the exciting young Argentine centre Gonzalo Tiesi. Even so, the visitors start as favourites, despite their desperate record away from Ravenhill. A win for the Celtic League champions would earn them the right to be bracketed with Leinster and Munster as major players in the tournament.
Wasps, seldom anything less than major players in any competition, looked decent bets for a quarter-final place and more at the start of the tournament, but a scratchy victory over Castres in the opening round and a poor performance in Perpignan last time out has left them vulnerable. They will almost certainly beat Treviso in High Wycombe tomorrow - sadly, the diaspora of Test-class players has torn the heart from the Italian club game - but Lawrence Dallaglio's inability to make the starting line-up does not bode well. Can the 2004 champions win a second title without the great man in something approaching his finest fettle? Probably not.
We will learn much about the French challenge this weekend. Agen, so impressive at Gloucester in October, face something of an acid test against Leinster in Dublin; Toulouse, hopelessly out of sorts, could easily come unstuck against Stephen Jones' well-coached Llanelli Scarlets side. Either or both might make the last eight. By the same yardstick, they are likely to drop like a stone if things go wrong today. Perhaps Castres or Perpignan will sneak up the blind side and catch everyone with their pants down. The two meet at Stade Pierre-Antoine in what may prove the most significant game of all.Reuse content