Passionate Llanelli plan to satisfy Jenkins' obsession

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The Independent Online

High Emotion has become unfashionable in rugby, notwithstanding the sight of Lawrence Dallaglio crying a river during the build-up to England's World Cup semi-final with France in Sydney a couple of months ago.

Back in 1997, when the Lions toured South Africa, a fly-on-the-wall camera team captured Martin Johnson in full four-lettered flight in the dressing room, appealing to the animal instincts of his players and ordering them to perform unspeakable acts on any Springbok who might cross their paths. In last year's Grand Slam video, this same Johnson was about as wild as Lord Hutton.

If the game has sacrificed something of its soul on the altar of cold-eyed reason, Llanelli Scarlets will reclaim a little of the past when they pitch up at Franklin's Gardens tomorrow. The Welshmen could, and should, have won the Heineken Cup in 2000, but fell at the penultimate hurdle when they failed to hold their nerve against a Northampton side so debilitated by injury and exhaustion that they could barely stand up. The Midlanders won 31-28 at the death and went on to claim the silverware. By their own admission, Llanelli were heartbroken.

As this re-match, the final act of a Heineken pool stage in which mighty confrontations have been decided by the tiniest margins, could mark the end of Gareth Jenkins' coaching career in European club rugby - if the Scarlets lose, they are out - it does not require the services of a soothsayer to anticipate the level of raw passion likely to be generated in the visitors' changing room.

Jenkins is widely expected to succeed Steve Hansen as the coach of Wales at the end of the Six Nations' Championship, and if the runes are being read correctly, this is his last opportunity to lay hands on the trophy that has obsessed him since 1995.

Ironically, Llanelli's chances have been undercut by international business. Iestyn Thomas, their accomplished loose-head scrummager, was injured during a Six Nations training session on Monday and needed a fitness test on his mangled ankle before being cleared to play.

If Llanelli are just about equipped to prevail over a cussed Northampton side hugely encouraged by their win in Agen eight days ago, little prevents another set of beaten semi-finalists, Gloucester, graduating to the knock-out stage for only the second time. Victory over Treviso at Kingsholm this afternoon will confirm their progress, even if their great rivals from Munster win the pool by beating a Bourgoin team in an advanced state of turmoil.

As usual, the mathematics of the piece are Hawking-esque, but with 13 teams chasing the eight quarter-final places at the start of the last round-robin weekend, the system has once again been justified in its complexity.

Pool Six, starring Wasps and Perpignan, with Celtic Warriors as convincing supporting actors with an eye on one of the main parts, is a production worthy of Sam Goldwyn himself, and it is by no means certain that the English champions will extricate themselves from the hole they dug for themselves at High Wycombe last month, when they were beaten by the Warriors.

And more interesting still, Thomas Lièvremont's Biarritz team playing their usual trick of sneaking up on the rails. A convincing victory over Leinster in Basque territory today will do the Dubliners down and leave the O'Driscolls, O'Kellys and Costellos all dressed up with nowhere to go. Fascinating, as ever.

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