All the ingredients are in place for an Anglo-French tear-up: two teams with realistic ambitions of making the Heineken Cup knockout stages, a ferocious local crowd, a whiff of mutual enmity and a referee who, recent evidence suggests, could not control a Postman Pat party for five-year-old girls, let alone a grown-up game of rugby. Giulio de Santis, an Italian official who whistled Wasps clean out of Belfast when the Londoners visited Ulster earlier this month, has been awarded today's tasty little contest between Perpignan and Leicester, which at least confirms the existence of a sense of humour among the tournament hierarchy.
De Santis annoyed Wasps so much in the course of 80 penalty-plagued minutes at Ravenhill that when the Premiership club came to award him marks out of 10, they plumped for a big fat zero. Needless to say, Leicester are now wary of what may be in store for them at Stade Aime Giral. Peter Wheeler, the champions' chief executive, and team manager Dean Richards, have registered their concern at so inexperienced a referee being let loose on so combustible a fixture. Indeed, Wheeler came close to suggesting that refereeing appointments should be based on a strict meritocracy, rather than the system of Europe-wide inclusiveness.
Perpignan beat Leicester on home soil in a pre-season friendly and need to do so again if they are serious about graduating from an awkward pool in which Llanelli are also challenging hard. The Catalans are light on international talent – they have the former French hooker Marc Dal Maso, the veteran outside-half Thierry Lacroix and not much else – but they have lost only once in five French championship outings this season. There again, the Midlanders are not exactly fragile themselves. Martin Johnson has a busted hand, Martin Corry is unlikely to start today because of a persistent hamstring problem and Freddie Tuilagi has little chance of returning to the left wing after injury problems of his own, but Leicester have such ridiculous strength in depth that they can still afford to consider restricting inventive Irish wing Geordan Murphy and former All Black flanker Josh Kronfeld to bench duty. Victory will keep them ahead of the game in Pool One and reinforce their status as tournament favourites.
If Wasps are up against it in Pool Two, where Stade Français and Ulster have almost identical records at the top of the pile, the other groups are wide open. In Pool Six, the power-brokers of Toulouse are slowly regathering their competitive faculties after the terrible chemical explosion that wrecked part of their city last month, and it will be no great surprise if they thump the living daylights out of Newcastle tomorrow. In Pool Four, Harlequins must prevail over Castres in another Sunday match if they are to make up some of the ground lost to Munster three weeks ago.
Pool Five is as tight as a drum. Montferrand travel to weakened Northampton without one or two big names of their own: Gerald Merceron, the French Test stand-off, is injured, while the brilliant Tricolore flanker Olivier Magne has been omitted from the starting line-up. However, David Bory is back at left wing in a side led by the Italian scrum-half Alessandro Troncon, and victory at Franklin's Gardens will give the visitors an even-money shot at a place in the last eight.
That said, Cardiff also fancy their chances, now that Iestyn Harris is installed at outside-half and Pieter Muller and Emyr Lewis are back in the swing. More fun and games in Pool Three where Bath, unable to put a foot right in the Premiership, could do themselves a power of good in Edinburgh this evening. Swansea face a must-win match with the disappointing Biarritz at St Helens. "We have massively under-achieved in Europe," said Scott Gibbs, the Swansea captain. "We have made our excuses – travel, weather, refereeing decisions – but the bottom line is that we are too inconsistent." Honest words. All Gibbs requires now is an honest performance.Reuse content