Tigers travel into Limerick lair hoping for historic win

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The Independent Online

Thomond Park it is, then. Thanks a bunch. Munster, the reigning European champions, have played 25 Heineken Cup matches in their Limerick lair and won ... er, 25. They have not so much as looked like losing on this particular rectangle of mud since dinosaurs were last seen roaming outside the committee rooms of the Rugby Football Union, and they are damned if they intend to go under now the place is about to close for redevelopment. As challenges go, the one facing Leicester this evening is rugby's version of K2.

The Midlanders have to buck history and win, just to guarantee themselves a place in the last eight of the tournament by which they measure their season. They might sneak in as one of the two best runners-up, but they would be fools to bank on it. There is only one approach open to them, and it has nothing to do with sneaking out of southern Ireland with a losing bonus point and hoping for the best.

Certainly, this is how Martin Corry, the recently deposed captain of England, sees it. "After our early home defeat against Munster last October, we hoped we would come into this game with everything riding on it," the No 8 said yesterday. "We told ourselves we had to go through the remaining pool games unbeaten, and we managed it. If we can dominate the ball and put ourselves on the front foot, then we'll feel we can play to our best. It could be a very exciting day."

When they are really serious about winning a game of rugby, Leicester tend to raise the coffin lid and summon Julian White, that veritable Dracula of a front-row forward, to their starting line-up. The Lions tight-head specialist takes his place in a full-strength forward pack today, with the impressive Martin Castrogiovanni on the loose head, Louis Deacon in the Martin Johnson role and Shane Jennings on the open-side flank. Munster, meanwhile, include 11 of the men who started last season's final against Biarritz. The exceptions are Barry Murphy and Lifiemi Mafi in the centre, Frank Sheahan at hooker and Mick O'Driscoll on the blind-side flank.

Wasps, who stand alongside Leicester as one of four English clubs to have won the ultimate prize, face a severe test of their own this lunchtime when they play Castres in a winner-take-all match. Their opponents may not be among the glitterati of the Tricolore game, but they are sufficiently unpredictable to scare the living daylights out of the best opponents. They certainly put the frighteners on Wasps last October; indeed, they should have won the game hands down. The Londoners will have to bring everything to the party if they are to do the necessary this time.

Paul Sackey's knee injury prevents the England wing participating, so Fraser Waters comes into a reshaped back division with Josh Lewsey shifting to the right flank. Up front, Tom Rees edges Jonny O'Connor out of the back row combination - a clear indication of the shape of things to come. Rees made one of the tackles of the season during last weekend's heavy-duty victory over Perpignan. It may well be that Wasps will need something similar from him today.

Sale, the English champions, have so many casualties at present that Edgeley Park resembles the local Accident and Emergency department during one of Stockport's a fractious Saturday nights. Under the circumstances, no one died of shock when yet another front-line player, Jason Robinson, broke down with a strained something-or-other this week. Robinson has been named on the bench for this afternoon's meeting with Ospreys but is by no means certain to sit on it. If he fails to pass a late fitness test, the Welsh centre Jon Bryant will be promoted to the XXII.

It is a tall order for either side to make it through to the knock-out phase of the competition. Northampton, on the other hand, have every chance. Biarritz, their opponents at Franklin's Gardens tomorrow, have already qualified, and may just be off their game. Should the Saints raise hell and record a famous victory, they will feature at the business end of the tournament.

Heineken Cup Pools: The maths game

* POOL ONE Complicated. Wasps must win in Castres this lunchtime to be sure of qualification. Defeat by fewer than seven points might be enough, but if Castres score four tries the Londoners could find themselves nudged off top spot even if the game is tight. A Castres victory by eight points or more could eliminate Wasps altogether.

* POOL TWO Leinster won the group in the previous round of matches. Last night, they travelled to Gloucester in search of the bonus-point win that would guarantee them a home quarter-final.

* POOL THREE Stade Français are virtually certain to take maximum points from their home match with an outclassed Calvisano this afternoon, and should therefore win the pool. A home quarter-final is unlikely, even so. Both Sale and Ospreys, who meet at Edgeley Park, require a bonus-point victory to give them a sniff of a chance of qualification in one of the two runner-up slots.

* POOL FOUR Leicester must win against the reigning champions in Munster this evening to win the group. Good luck to them. A narrow defeat by fewer than seven points might be enough to keep them in the tournament, but there are no guarantees. Victory for Munster would give them a home tie in the last eight.

* POOL FIVE The Scarlets won this pool a week ago. Victory over London Irish, the bottom feeders, at Stradey Park tomorrow would almost certainly send the Welshmen through as one of the top two seeds.

* POOL SIX Biarritz have scored 27 tries in five matches, but have yet to nail down the weakest of the pools. If they win at Northampton tomorrow, or prevent the Midlanders scoring four tries, they will definitely earn a home quarter-final. Northampton need a losing bonus point to be more or less sure of making the last eight as one of the two best second-placed teams.

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