Varndell promoted for Leicester's French test

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Both the Ospreys and Stade Français did their level best to prevent Leicester, the only team successfully to defend a Heineken Cup title, securing a place in the knock-out stage of Europe's élite tournament for the seventh time in nine attempts, but came up short in the final few minutes. Maybe the combined forces of the competition organisers and the rights-holding broadcasters can stop the Midlanders in their tracks.

This evening, a mere five days after straining every sinew to prevail over Stade Français during the last knockings of a captivating pool encounter at Welford Road, the three-time finalists take on Clermont Auvergne at the Parc des Sports Marcel-Michelin, where the Frenchmen have lost only once this season. It is a desperately short turn-around for Leicester, especially as Clermont are in less than generous mood.

The home side may be out of the running for a last-eight spot, but they are conscious that denying Leicester so much as a losing bonus point, they will open the door for Stade Français to win the group, assuming the Parisians do a decent job on the Ospreys in the French capital tonight. To this end, Clermont have named a fearsomely strong side including the Springbok wing Breyton Paulse and the Lions outside-half Stephen Jones among the backs, not to mention the likes of Mario Ledesma, the outstanding Argentinian hooker, and the accomplished back-rower from New Zealand, Sam Broomhall, in their pack.

Leicester deserved a Sunday fixture, having played on the Sabbath last time out. At the worst, they expected a Saturday game. Instead, the great and good of the television industry have landed them with a Friday night ­ a decision that means a number of walking wounded will be press-ganged into service earlier than they would have liked.

Indeed, Pat Howard, the Tigers coach, has made four changes to the side that started against Stade Français, promoting the wing Tom Varndell and the flanker Luke Abraham as a result of injuries to Leon Lloyd and Shane Jennings, while dropping scrum-half Austin Healey and the blind-side specialist Will Johnson to the bench. Harry Ellis and Brett Deacon take their places in the run-on team.

"It is a short turn-around between games, but it's something I have to deal with," said Howard, who played at Clermont a couple of seasons back before succeeding John Wells as Leicester's guiding light. "We haven't been in a position to do much training. It's been more about the mental side, with a lot of classroom work.

Clermont have a bigger pack than Stade and not many teams beat Clermont in Clermont, but that is what we are going out there to do. We are not travelling just to pick up a point. We want to win and get out of this pool first, which would be a pretty good achievement."

Talking of achievements, it will be quite something if Leeds find a way into the knock-out phase by subjecting Cardiff Blues to a four-try defeat at Headingley on Sunday ­ not only because the Blues are planning to inflict something similar on their hosts, but because Leeds are distinctly fortunate to be involved in the shake-up at all. Last night, the tournament administrators decided Calvisano were to blame for the pantomime surrounding last weekend's twice-postponed match with the Yorkshiremen, even though the referee, George Clancy of Ireland, declared the Italians' pitch playable on Sunday.

Leeds, who refused to perform on a frozen surface they considered a danger to their collective well-being, flew home on Monday, ensuring that the fixture could not be fulfilled before this weekend's final round of group games. The board of European Rugby Cup Ltd eventually came down on their side, deciding Calvisano had failed to prepare a suitable pitch or identify an alternative venue and awarding the Premiership club a five-point victory, which leaves them with an outside chance of progressing from Pool Two.