There was a time when the French took a serious approach to Europe's second-tier competition; indeed, they had the first four finals entirely to themselves. It was Harlequins who broke the sequence, by winning in 2001. Since then, England have provided two-thirds of the finalists, and it will be an all-Premiership affair again tomorrow. Quins may not be there this time, but they are every bit as interested in the outcome as Bath or Worcester.
Should the West Countrymen, favourites in most quarters but low on belief after two expensive defeats in as many weeks, prevail at Kingsholm, the Londoners will find themselves in the draw for next season's elite Heineken Cup tournament. If the spoils go to Worcester, outsiders with a run of form behind them, it will be they who fill the sixth and last Heineken place available to English clubs.
Worcester fancy themselves, despite their inability to record a meaningful victory in the first half of the season. Two of their three All Blacks, the centre Sam Tuitupou and the lock Greg Rawlinson, have bedded themselves in – their fellow New Zealander, the wing Rico Gear, has been forced on to the bench by a rejuvenated Marcel Garvey and the exciting newcomer Miles Benjamin – and as a consequence, their recent results have been impressive indeed.
"We have big plans for next season, when we intend to prove we mean business," said their director of rugby, Mike Ruddock, who yesterday reappointed the former England flanker Pat Sanderson as captain for the umpteenth consecutive season. Whether Worcester, at their present stage of development, would make a better fist of Heineken Cup rugby than Quins is a moot point, but a shot at the European big time would certainly help them maximise season ticket sales at Sixways.
Bath will be in the Heineken draw come what may, but in a sense they need victory more than Worcester. It is 10 years since they became the first English side to win the European title and in the interim they have won precisely nothing. "We've played some pretty good stuff this season and it would be a great shame if this group of players ended up with nothing because they've been responsible for a rebirth of Bath rugby, a return to the culture of the club's golden age," said Steve Meehan, the head coach who has replaced the injured wing Andrew Higgins by recalling Nick Abendanon at full-back and shifting Joe Maddock wide.
"We need to take this step now. If we can make the breakthrough, we will stop the self-doubt creeping in. It's a hugely important game for us."
Bath: N Abendanon; J Maddock, A Crockett, O Barkley, M Banahan; A James, M Claassens; D Flatman, L Mears, M Stevens, D Grewcock, S Borthwick (capt), J Fa'amatuainu, M Lipman, D Browne. Replacements: P Dixon, D Bell, P Short, I Feau'nati, N Walshe, S Berne, T Cheeseman.
Worcester: T Delport; M Garvey, D Rasmussen, S Tuitupou, M Benjamin; S Drahm, M Powell; T Windo, A Lutui, T Taumoepeau, G Rawlinson, C Gillies, D Hickey, P Sanderson (capt), K Horstmann. Replacements: C Horsman, M Mullan, W Bowley, N Talei, N Powell, J Carlisle, R Gear.Reuse content