Vickery's men size up Stade as cross-Channel rivalry grows

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The Independent Online

The Bois de Boulogne has precious little in common with the Forest of Dean, apart from certain arborescent characteristics - and even the trees look more expensive in Paris. Yet those Gloucester supporters who habitually pack their passports for an away match at Cheltenham will surely catch a whiff of something familiar when Stade Français, their hosts this afternoon, take the field in the western reaches of the French capital. Heavyweight contenders for this season's European title, the two sides play the same game in much the same way. Stand by for a minor classic.

The Bois de Boulogne has precious little in common with the Forest of Dean, apart from certain arborescent characteristics - and even the trees look more expensive in Paris. Yet those Gloucester supporters who habitually pack their passports for an away match at Cheltenham will surely catch a whiff of something familiar when Stade Français, their hosts this afternoon, take the field in the western reaches of the French capital. Heavyweight contenders for this season's European title, the two sides play the same game in much the same way. Stand by for a minor classic.

Of course, there is classic potential wherever the eye is cast. This is the nature of the Heineken Cup, by some distance the most captivating annual tournament in world rugby. On any given Saturday, an Anglo-Irish rumble between Munster and Harlequins in Limerick or an Anglo-Welsh spat between the Dragons and Newcastle in Newport would set the juices flowing. But these fixtures must settle for secondary status this weekend, thanks to a first-round schedule that pits the best of England against the best of France in a three-cornered contest of considerable significance.

Stade-Gloucester, Bath-Bourgoin, Wasps-Biarritz... we will learn an awful lot about the state of the respective nations in the coming hours. England and France have a virtual monopoly on success in this competition - when Ulster won the title in 1999, the Premiership clubs were up to their eyebrows in their own boycott - and for all the political and organisational clout of Munster, it will be a shock to the system if this campaign flies in the face of custom. A victory on the road for any of the three visiting sides this weekend will be interpreted as a major statement of intent.

Gloucester are certainly in the mood for a shindig in the shadow of the Parc des Princes. Phil Vickery's return to fitness gives the West Countrymen an enormous degree of clout at the sharp end of the scrum - Christo Bezuidenhout and Olivier Azam complete a front row constructed by the firm responsible for the Alps - and with Alex Brown and James Forrester in the back five of the pack, they should not struggle for line-out ball. Stade, shorn of Ignacio Corleto at the rear and two forwards of high quality in Pieter de Villiers and Remy Martin, will have to be at their most ruthless to prevail. They have five internationals on the bench, and may need them.

Bath, the 1998 winners, will certainly interest the man who inspired them to that unlikely triumph over Brive six years ago - Andy Robinson, the England coach. Robinson is in need of a captain now that Jonny Wilkinson has gone crook again, and his old club are putting up some candidates. Mike Tindall, the World Cup-winning centre, is one; Steve Borthwick, an acknowledged leader without portfolio at the Recreation Ground, is another. If Borthwick deals comfortably with the Bourgoin lock Pascal Papé this afternoon - Papé is the man of the moment in the Lyonnais - he will do his cause no end of good.

In the popular imagination, Bourgoin are less of a threat than at this stage last season - something to do with the sacking of Philippe Saint-André as coach and the decision of Sébastien Chabal, that wild-eyed titan of a No 8, to follow Saint-André to Sale. Yet the visitors have turned in some solid performances in a dog-eat-dog national championship, winning their home games with points to spare and losing only narrowly at Stade and Perpignan. As ever, they will be dangerous if they still feel good about themselves after an hour.

Wasps, the champions, look a whole lot stronger for the return of Josh Lewsey on the wing and Will Green at tight-head prop, but Biarritz have game-breakers in Nicolas Brusque, Jimmy Marlu and Imanol Harinordoquy, and a body-breaker in Serge Betsen, perhaps the most destructive loose forward of the age. The Basques tend to start slowly in Heineken Cup rugby, but they rarely let the opportunity of knock-out qualification pass them by. Victory tomorrow would leave Wasps nursing a headache of the migraine variety.

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