Toulouse present testing task for wounded Northampton

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The Independent Online

Northampton could use a little good news right now, having just completed a grand slam of domestic cup final defeats at Twickenham and moved within one abject failure of equalling Leicester, their nearest and dearest, as the most prolific runners-up in the competition. The Tigers, of course, have actually won the cup, too – five cups, as a matter of fact, compared with the big fat zero on Northampton's balance sheet – so if this is the age of the East Midlands as far as English rugby is concerned, only one set of neighbours can feel remotely content with life.

Northampton could use a little good news right now, having just completed a grand slam of domestic cup final defeats at Twickenham and moved within one abject failure of equalling Leicester, their nearest and dearest, as the most prolific runners-up in the competition. The Tigers, of course, have actually won the cup, too – five cups, as a matter of fact, compared with the big fat zero on Northampton's balance sheet – so if this is the age of the East Midlands as far as English rugby is concerned, only one set of neighbours can feel remotely content with life.

The fact that Northampton must attempt to make amends for their latest misfire in the notoriously inhospitable surroundings of Toulouse this weekend is unlikely to make things easier, but there was a smidgen of positive information for them yesterday as they began preparations for a Heineken Cup quarter-final expected to attract an audience of 36,000-plus. Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, the goal-kicking scrum-half who worked his way into the French Six Nations squad and is favoured to make the World Cup party later this year, picked up an injury during his club's championship play-off victory over Bourgoin on Saturday and is doubtful for the game.

Toulouse being Toulouse, the so-called Real Madrid of rugby, they are not short of alternatives: both Yann Delaigue and Frédéric Michalak can do a bit on the kicking front. But the Frenchmen have under-achieved in Europe for some years now – they won the first Heineken tournament in 1996 but have not reached a final since – and are already distinctly itchy about their prospects this time. "Our performance against Northampton will have to be 30 per cent better than that against Bourgoin if we are to progress," their coach, Guy Noves, grumbled yesterday.

Noves' opposite number, Wayne Smith, sounded even less happy with life in giving his side no more than a "starter's chance" of making the last four. "Toulouse play a style of rugby we don't come across too often," the former All Blacks coach said. "They play with a lot of continuity and pass the ball before the tackle. If they put it together, they destroy teams." Equally damningly, Smith pointed to his club's desperate record in France – one European Shield victory in Toulon in the 1996-97 campaign, against defeats in Bordeaux, Narbonne, Grenoble, Biarritz and Clermont-Ferrand.

At least Northampton are certain of Premiership rugby next season, which is more than can be said for their predecessors as European champions, Bath. They were gathering today for the build-up to Thursday night's relegation scrap with London Irish at the Recreation Ground, and hope to have two international backs, Mike Tindall and Matt Perry, available for selection after injury. A third Test player, Mike Catt, ended Sunday's defeat at Wasps in the outside-half position and may well remain there for the visit of the Exiles.

Three English referees – the full-time professional trio of Chris White, Steve Lander and Tony Spreadbury – are on the International Rugby Board's 26-man shortlist for the World Cup in Australia this autumn. The Australians have four candidates, as do New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland. One senior Springbok official, Tappe Henning, failed to make the cut, while Joel Dumé, of France, and Iain Ramage, of Scotland, were recalled to the élite panel.

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