Toulouse magic may be misery for Wasps

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Toulouse have been known to get it wrong in the Heineken Cup, just as Isaiah Berlin occasionally made an error during his stately orations on the history of ideas, but it is not a common occurrence. In fact, the Frenchmen have won the tournament more often than they have flunked out of it in the pool phase - a fact that will not have escaped the notice of Wasps, the 2004 champions, as they contemplate the possibility of their own death by a thousand lacerating attacks at High Wycombe tomorrow.

The Londoners' defeat at Edinburgh in the opening round has left them horribly exposed, to the extent that defeat by the outstanding team in the northern hemisphere will almost certainly leave them a couple of points short of a place in the knock-out stage for the second successive campaign. Hence the frenzy surrounding this game, which could easily revisit the heights of the two Wasps-Leicester matches in this competition last season.

So many people make so many grand claims for the distinctive brand of rugby created and patented by Toulouse that the less obsequious followers of the 15-man game are beginning to pray for their demise. There again, only the wilfully perverse would seek to deny that they are as good as everyone says. Brian Ashton, the most radical British coach of his generation, insists that the present-day team do nothing new - certainly nothing that would be unrecognisable to Jean-Pierre Rives and the greats of yesteryear. It is just that no one else can even begin to do this old stuff as well as them.

"They've been playing this way for 20 years," said Ashton, who, precisely two decades ago, spent an instructive spell at the club, coaching alongside the magical Pierre Villepreux.

"It has been a process, built on consistency. After Villepreux, they had Jean-Claude Skrela; after Skrela, they had Guy Noves, who still coaches them now. Their players are completely at home with the style and the strategy because it has been handed down to them from generation to generation. I watched them beat Llanelli last weekend and it was wonderful. The previous match on television had been the Leinster-Bath game and I have to say that if a visitor from another planet watched the first game and was told it was called 'rugby union', he would be bound to say: 'OK, so what game are Toulouse playing'?"

Wasps, who are woefully lightweight in the prop department, will play Jon Dawson in the tight-head position ahead of Peter Bracken, their summer recruit from Connacht. Even if the former Harlequin plays out of his socks and holds the scrum in one piece, the home side will need top-notch performances from their top-of-the-bill acts - Lawrence Dallaglio, Josh Lewsey, Matt Dawson and the in-form Tom Voyce - to pose a serious threat.

Meanwhile, their near neighbours from the north of the capital are doing very nicely thank you. Saracens thoroughly deserved their bruising victory over Biarritz last weekend and victory on the road over the born-awkward Italians of Treviso this afternoon will set them up for a meaningful tilt at a place in the last eight. Steve Diamond, their forthright director of rugby, has made two changes to his front row, promoting Nick Lloyd and Shane Byrne over Kevin Yates and Matt Cairns. In addition, he has restored the fleet-footed Dan Scarbrough to the wing after injury.

By way of completing a quartet of Anglo-French contests, Leicester travel to Stade Français for a humdinger of a confrontation that may well open up a few fault-lines beneath the avenues of Paris, while Bath meet Bourgoin at the Recreation Game in a match that could make the others resemble ballet practice at a Swiss finishing school.

If Bath are forward-driven, Bourgoin consider back play to be an insult to their manhood. Grab your helmets and head for the bunker.

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