Saint-André steeled for Gloucester challenge

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The Independent Online

It is a close-run thing, given Nigel Melville's trophy-winning exploits last season, but Philippe Saint-André may just be the most popular coach ever to have dipped his toe in the sporting maelstrom that goes by the name of Gloucester RFC. If the players found the Frenchman's moods almost as unfathomable as the industrial coffee-making machine he installed in the Kingsholm clubhouse the day after succeeding Richard Hill as top dog, the local supporters loved him so such that they serenaded him with an agricultural version of "La Marseillaise" every time he appeared in public.

Maybe the troglodytes holed up in the Kingsholm Shed will one day adopt a Yorkshire accent and treat Melville to a rendition of "On Ilkley Moor Baht'At"; maybe they will go for it this afternoon, should Gloucester make their old boss suffer on his long-awaited return to the Cotswolds. Who knows? If a coach as dedicated and successful as the former Tricolore captain can be railroaded out of town for some spurious contractual reason, as Saint-André was early in 2002, everything is possible.

Being the competitive little blighter he is, Saint-André has been pumping himself up for this occasion since the Heineken Cup draw was made in the summer. Bourgoin are a very tidy outfit, and while their coach would much prefer them to be at full strength - the absences of Olivier Milloud, Christophe Laussucq and Grant Esterhuizen hardly help their cause - they are treating this as a win-or-bust fixture, having slipped up by a point against Munster last weekend.

Yesterday, Saint-André was making all the usual statements about Gloucester's forward strength and near-invincibility on home territory. "If you want a result at Kingsholm, you must never switch off, not for one second," he said. "When Gloucester start to go forward, when the stands are full of people and noise, you can concede a lot of points in two or three minutes. They are strong at the set-piece, strong in defence and with the pressure of the public, funny things can happen to referees. So we will have to be strong too, in heart and in mind."

Strength is something Bourgoin appear to possess in abundance. They lost few players to the World Cup, but their domestic results speak for themselves. They have won three out of four matches in the championship, including a game against Nick Mallett's Stade Français in Paris, and reached the final of the elite knock-out competition, where they lost a controversial contest to a resurgent Castres. They are in good shape, and Saint-André knows it.

Yet Gloucester remain favourites. They will miss Andy Hazell, their specialist open-side flanker, who is suffering from a stomach injury, but with Peter Buxton and Adam Eustace restored to a pack boasting England's World Cup-winning props, Trevor Woodman and Phil Vickery, they will not be short of physical presence. If the West Countrymen get home this afternoon, their chances of progress will largely depend on next month's back-to-back matches with Munster, their co-stars in last season's unforgettable piece of sporting theatre. The prospect could not be more delicious.

Northampton also face a severe test of their mettle from the French today, and when Agen, captained by the formidable Jean-Jacques Crenca, arrive at Franklin's Gardens, they will discover that Matthew Dawson is not around to stoke the Midlanders' fires. Dawson suffered a hip injury during training this week, so the Saints must make do with just the three members of the World Cup-winning squad: Ben Cohen, Steve Thompson and Paul Grayson.