Toulouse set the benchmark for cup challenge

The reigning champions from France open their account against Llanelli Scarlets this evening before travelling to High Wycombe next Sunday, and by the look of their line-up they will take an awful lot of stopping.

Frédéric Michalak, perhaps the most gifted European player of his generation, is on the bench for the meeting with the Scarlets. Frighteningly, Toulouse could keep him there all afternoon and still gallop around with Clement Poitrenaud at full-back, Gareth Thomas and Cedric Heymans on the wings, Yannick Jauzion and Florian Fritz in midfield, Jean-Frédéric Dubois at stand-off and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde at scrum-half. Llanelli, armed with a couple of useful three-quarters in Mark Jones and Matthew Watkins but comparatively lightweight in other areas, must be dreading it.

The sheer weight of quality underpinning the French challenge for a third title in four years means the degree of unpredictability of the tournament is less than in previous seasons. Biarritz, who face Saracens in Watford tomorrow, are without the peerless Serge Betsen, who has a fractured cheekbone, yet they can still bring Nicolas Brusque, Damien Traille, Dimitri Yachvilli, Jerome Thion, Imanol Harinordoquy and the wonderful Thomas Lievremont to the party.

Stade Français, who will take on an injury-riddled Ospreys team in Swansea tomorrow, possess three forwards - the prop Pieter de Villiers, the Italian back-rower Sergio Parisse and the blond-bombshell breakaway Remy Martin - who are as effective as any in the competition and immeasurably better than most. Few sides on earth could shrug their shoulders at the absence of Christophe Dominici, Sylvain Marconnet, David Auradou and Mauro Bergamasco, but this lot can.

For the sake of English pride, it is therefore vital that Leicester put on a show against Clermont Auvergne at Welford Road this afternoon. The Midlanders' fortress is not always secure against the French hordes - Toulouse, Stade Français and Biarritz have all prevailed there down the years. However, Martin Corry's side still fancy their chances against the club formerly known as Montferrand, regardless of the fact that their first-choice Lions props, Graham Rowntree and Julian White, will be nowhere to be seen, thanks to injury and suspension.

"Our record against the French is not something that worries us," insisted their New Zealand centre, Daryl Gibson, whose iron commitment and profound understanding of the dynamics of high-standard rugby make him a central figure in the Leicester cause.

"This is a top-class competition, and it is inevitable that a team will lose a match or two. All we are concerned about is our own game. The Heineken Cup is a big step up, so in a way our season is only starting now, despite the fact we are seven games into it."

Leicester should make it home today, although Clermont Auvergne are nobody's fools, having beaten Stade Français at home in the French domestic championship and lost narrowly at Biarritz and Perpignan, where away victories are as rare as hen's teeth.

By the same yardstick, Wasps will expect a decent return from the trip tomorrow to Edinburgh, who boast Simon Taylor and Ally Hogg in a useful back row but are unlikely to match the pace and ferocity of the Londoners out wide.

In many ways the intrigue surrounds Bath, who take on Leinster in Dublin, and Leeds, who have yet to win a match in any competition this season but may just back themselves against Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park, on the basis that all bad things come to an end sooner or later.

The Bath team, certainly, are in high good humour, having defeated Gloucester a player short last weekend. With Brian O'Driscoll and Denis Hickie erased from the Leinster back-line, the West Countrymen may just exert sufficient pressure up front to come away with a result.


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