Andy Robinson, the former England coach currently constructing a vibrant new career for himself in Scotland, always said his Edinburgh team would upset the apple cart at least once during the pool stage of the Heineken Cup. He was true to his word, for Leinster were beaten – and beaten well – at Murrayfield last month. Robinson is not the sort to settle for a solitary uprising, however. Not while Leicester, of all teams on God's earth, remain on the fixture list.
West Country sporting imperatives do not naturally translate to life north of the border, but a good Bath man like Robinson could spend the rest of his born days in Scotland and still put victory over those bloody Midlanders at the very top of his wish list. What's bred in the bone, and all that.
Leicester may find this afternoon's visit to the Scottish capital extremely testing. They need to win with a four-try bonus point to keep their qualification hopes healthy, but Robinson has his new charges operating at a good level. Their strong form in the Magner's League has thrust them towards the top of the table, and as a result, four of their better young players – the wing Ben Cairns, the centre Nick de Luca, the outside-half Calum MacRae and the flanker Ross Rennie – have been selected for their country's Six Nations training squad. Rennie, a particular favourite of Robinson's, starts today alongside Cairns and De Luca. MacRae is on the bench. One way or another, Edinburgh fancy their chances of another victory.
The coach feels he owes Leicester one, so to speak. After the early-season defeat at Welford Road, he admitted that his side had been "bullied and beaten up", adding: "We'll learn from it. I'll be disappointed if they do that to us in the return match." While the Tigers are perfectly well equipped to resume their browbeating activities – Jordan Crane, the hot-shot No 8 who yesterday signed a new contract at Welford Road, can do no better than fill a seat on the bench – memories of ancient Bath-Leicester contests never fail to raise Robinson's dander.
If Leicester's immediate Heineken Cup future seems a touch on the shaky side, Gloucester and London Irish are set fair for a place in the knockout phase. The former travel to Ospreys this evening and, with the single exception of the new England contender Lesley Vainikolo, still at his family home in New Zealand mourning the death of his father, they have selected from strength. Ospreys have done likewise – Gavin Henson is back in midfield, while forwards as potent as Ian Evans and Jonathan Thomas cannot make the starting line-up – but the visitors could draw a blank and still qualify for the last eight as top seeds.
Irish, meanwhile, go from strength to strength. A bonus-point victory over the down-and-out Newport-Gwent Dragons will leave them on the brink of a home quarter-final, thereby complementing some nifty business off the field. After negotiating new deals with a number of influential players, the Exiles have cemented their relationship with Reading Football Club by agreeing a long-term residency at the Madejski Stadium, where they intend to stay until 2026.
Having seen a doubling of their average gate in the seven years since moving to the stadium – on occasion, they have attracted crowds of more than 20,000 – the Exiles management has shelved tentative plans to move back into London in favour of security of tenure at perhaps the most modern dual-purpose venue in the country. The football club recently obtained planning permission for an expansion of capacity to 38,000. Work is scheduled to begin this summer.
Rumours abound that Saracens, already the richest club in England in terms of investment potential and soon to be better off still thanks to the South African millions of Johann Rupert, will leave Watford and head for a site in the capital. That is an issue still to be decided, though. Biarritz, the most frustrating of the French contingent but never less than threatening, will be at Vicarage Road this afternoon for a fixture that will go a long way towards deciding the outcome of an unexpectedly competitive Pool Four.
Dimitri Yachvili, the goal-kicking scrum-half who has seen off more than one set of English opponents in this competition, remains on the casualty list, but the Basques still travel with a fistful of high-class performers. Nicolas Brusque, that most classical of full-backs, is on board, as are Damien Traille, Jérôme Thion and Imanal Harinordoquy. Biarritz also boast Takudzwa Ngwenya on the wing – and Ngwenya is a very interesting character indeed.
Back in September, he was one of rugby's nobodies – an anonymous back playing ho-hum rugby for Dallas Athletic in America. Then he turned out for the United States in their World Cup match with the Springboks and ran round Bryan Habana, waving goodbye as he did so. Biarritz were on his case immediately, along with a dozen other European clubs. Vicarage Road has seen the odd speed merchant down the years, but never a wing quite as speedy as this one.
Wasps, the champions, can countenance nothing less than a full-house victory over Llanelli Scarlets at High Wycombe tomorrow. They ought to manage it, given that the Welshmen are miles out of the running. The acid test comes next weekend, when Ian McGeechan's side visit Munster. Ouch.Reuse content