Tim Glover: France can now expect, the rest must hope

Six Nations countdown: Heineken Cup form lines point across channel - with Ireland and England leading the chase
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The governor's phone call came at the 11th hour, but having escaped death row Leicester, quietly ecstatic, should be suitably reformed to make the most of their reprieve. Of the English survivors in the Heineken Cup only the Tigers look capable of further progress.

The governor's phone call came at the 11th hour, but having escaped death row Leicester, quietly ecstatic, should be suitably reformed to make the most of their reprieve. Of the English survivors in the Heineken Cup only the Tigers look capable of further progress.

Leicester's reward for being the lucky losers in Pool One is a quarter-final against Leinster in Dublin. The Irish province, with no pedigree to speak of in Europe (compare and contrast with Leicester, who are recidivists when it comes to winning the thing), qualified in style from their group. However, the way that their forwards were forced to give best to Bath at the Recreation Ground suggests more style, particularly in a threequarter line that includes Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, than real substance.

Leicester did the double over Wasps, who in the end did not come up with a convincing defence of the trophy they won so heroically last season, but lost twice to Biarritz. If Heineken Cup form is a reliable yardstick the French are looking good for the Six Nations' Championship.

Biarritz, Toulouse and Stade Français all won their groups to earn home ties at the beginning of April, against Munster, Northampton and Newcastle respec-tively. To win in France requires more than a passport, a fair wind, a terrific defence and a referee of such character he would qualify for The Untouchables. However commendably Northampton and Newcastle performed in getting to the last eight, they face a step up in class.

Munster, who have a love-love relationship with the cup, qualified for their seventh straight quarter-final and their fans immediately began organising journeys to Biarritz. The Heineken is Munster's holy grail, but despite their chivalrous quests they have never managed to drink from the chalice.

They have missed Ronan O'Gara, who is recovering from a broken bone in his hand. He will be back for province and country, although the same cannot be said for Serge Betsen, the flanker responsible for sleepless nights for every No 10 in Europe. The most destructive wing-forward since that great All Black Waka Nathan was having half-backs for breakfast, Betsen awaits his fate after being cited by Wasps following a tackle on Stuart Abbott which left the England centre with a broken right leg and out for the season. Whatever the result of a disciplinary hearing Betsen will miss the start of the Six Nations - he has a leg injury. The words "poetic" and "justice" might have crossed Abbott's mind when he learnt that Betsen had torn a thigh muscle during a France training session last week.

The competitive nature of the Zurich Premiership gives with one hand and delivers an uppercut with the other. It is widely regarded as being a big factor in England's ability to ride the pressure in the World Cup; it is also being cited as responsible for the Red Rose medics working flat out in the field hospital. With Mike Tindall and Will Greenwood already out of service, Abbott's misfortune leaves Andy Robinson a centre or two short of a threequarter line.

Robinson and Brian Ashton, the head of the national academy, are both fans of Mathew Tait, the Newcastle teenager who seems set for an England debut sooner rather than later. Then there is Henry Paul, confused of Gloucester, who was jettisoned by Robinson after only 24 minutes of the autumn Test against Australia. "There's no issue with Henry as far as I'm concerned,'' Robinson said during England's cross-code workout with the Super League champions, Leeds Rhinos, at Headingley.

If Jonny Wilkinson hadn't picked up another injury, Charlie Hodgson could have been moved to centre, but England's options have been reduced, not wiped out. Ben Cohen has been playing centre for Northampton, Olly Barkley for Bath and that still leaves the specialists Ollie Smith and Jamie Noon. The back row, minus Richard Hill and Martin Corry, will also require further thought.

As strong as the Premiership is, most players agree that the Heineken is closer to international rugby, which should mean that not only are France well equipped to defend the Six Nations title but that Wales and Scotland do not have the euros to survive abroad. When the cream rose to the top the Welsh and Scottish regions and districts failed to surface, a huge disappointment for the former, all too predictable for the latter.

France open the Six Nations against Scotland in Paris on 5 February, followed by Wales against England at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. What all the national coaches have in common, apart it seems from Ireland's Eddie O'Sullivan, is the annual moan about not having enough quality time with the players.

According to Munster, Ireland have too much time with the national squad. "I won't see my players at all while the Six Nations is on,'' Alan Gaffney, the Munster coach, said. "The next time the whole squad will be together will probably be the end of March.'' If Gaffney sounds frustrated it is because Munster need all the help they can get. Twice beaten finalists, Munster are not the force they were, although such is their record at Thomond Park that not even Biarritz would feel safe there.

The stuff about club or country is almost as obligatory as the so-called pool of death, which this season featured Biarritz, Leicester, Wasps and Calvisano. After Wasps went out, Warren Gatland, their coach, complained about the seedings, but nobody spared a thought for Calvisano, who were used by the others as a cashpoint from which to extract bonus points. Of the 24 teams in the tournament only Calvisano failed to register a single point in the tables. For the Italian club the pool of death was a sick joke.

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