No margin for error in Europe
January 13, 2010
London Irish can't afford to slip up away to the Scarlets this weekend © Getty Images
The weekend brings the first Heineken Cup action of the new decade, and Europe's finest are starting to feel the pressure. With two rounds left to go the race is on for top spot, or a frantic grab for as many points as possible in the rush to secure a best runners-up spot.
Pool 3 is too tight to call, with Leicester, Clermont Auvergne and the Ospreys all in with a shout. Ospreys travel to face Clermont at the Stade Marcel Michelin in our Game of the Week on Saturday with a four-point cushion thanks to back-to-back bonus point victories over Viadana. Les Jaunards returned to the summit of the Top 14 last weekend and will be a fierce proposition for an Ospreys side that has shown flickers of its best in recent weeks.
Leicester defied the cold snap to thrash Wasps last weekend and there will be a typically fiery welcome for Viadana as the Tigers go in search of a bonus-point win on Saturday. There is a welcome return for Leicester as Sam Vesty makes his first start of the season in the centre, with Toby Flood wearing No.10. Louis Deacon skippers the side and there is a place for the impressive Dan Cole alongside George Chuter and Marcos Ayerza in the front-row.
The Italian side have a number of internationals on show, with Tongan Pierre Hola handed the reins at fly-half alongside Italian scrum-half Pablo Canavosio. Carlo del Fava starts with former Bristol lock Sean Hohneck in the second-row.
The round kicks off on Friday as Ulster aim to keep themselves in contention. Edinburgh are the visitors to Ravenhill in Pool 4, where the Irish province are four points behind Stade Francais.
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has recalled Darren Cave and Paddy Wallace in the centre, alongside enterprising fly-half Ian Humphreys. Willie Faloon is out with an injury, giving David Pollock a chance on the openside as Stephen Ferris and skipper Chris Henry complete the back-row.
Chris Paterson skippers Edinburgh from fullback in the absence of Mike Blair and Phil Godman returns at fly-half. Young prop David Young starts alongside Ross Ford and Allan Jacobsen, and faces a stern test against the Ulster trio of Tom Court, Nigel Brady and BJ Botha.
Stade host Bath with their destiny in their own hands, but a surprise at scrum-half as Scotland international fullback Hugo Southwell answers the call following a spate of injuries and Julien Dupuy's monster ban for gouging. Ignacio Mieres starts at fly-half and there is no place for ex-league star Mark Gasnier as Mirco Bergamasco and Julien Arias start out wide.
England's newest recruit, former Kiwi league start Shontayne Hape, starts in the centre fro Bath, with his fellow EPS member Matt Banahan hoping to cause some damage out wide. Former Western Province skipper Luke Watson starts at No.8.
Friday's other game sees the Dragons make the trip to Firhill to take on Glasgow in Pool 2. Both sides are playing for pride as Biarritz have taken a stranglehold on the group. The Basque club are ten points clear and face Gloucester at Kingsholm on Saturday with their unbeaten run intact.
Ruaridh Jackson returns at fly-half for the Warriors, with an exciting backline containing the Evans brothers, Thom and Max, and powerful centre Rob Dewey at his disposal. Shaun Connor starts opposite him for the Dragons, alongside former All Black scrum-half Danny Lee. Welsh international lock Luke Charteris is partnered by Rob Sidoli, with new cap Dan Lydiate starting at blindside.
Biarritz have include the man who tore Gloucester apart at the Parc des Sports Aguilera, wing Takudzwa Ngwenya, as well as talismanic No.8 Imanol Harinordoquy. There is a familiar face in the centre as England's Ayoola Erinle wears No.12.
Alasdair Dickinson starts for Gloucester at loose-head for the first time since October, while Rory Lawson returns to partner Nick Robinson at halfback. Out wide, James Simpson-Daniel shifts out to replace Charlie Sharples as Tim Molenaar comes into the midfield.
Toulouse are a point clear in Pool 5 and welcome bottom-placed Harlequins to the Stade Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux on Sunday. They will have one eye on events at the Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday, where Cardiff Blues host Sale.
The Sharks are poised to cause an upset but must first overcome the Blues, who are unbeaten at home in Europe so far. Kingsley Jones' men will want desperately to set up a winner-takes-all showdown with Toulouse next weekend. Sale duo Lee Thomas and Nick Macleod have been included in the starting XV against their former club, with Welsh internationals Dwayne Peel and Eifion Roberts also handed starts on home soil. Charlie Hodgson starts at fly-half and there is plenty of firepower out wide with Ben Cohen and Mark Cueto on the wings. Dean Schofield is joined by impressive youngster James Gaskell in the second-row.
Blues boss Dai Young has taken drastic action and dropped fly-half Sam Norton-Knight and skipper Paul Tito for the game. Ceri Sweeney starts alongside Richie Rees at halfback, while Deiniol Jones and Bradley Davies are named in the second-row. Xavier Rush, who continues to be linked with a move away from the region, starts at No.8 in a back-row also containing Andy Powell and Martyn Williams. Casey Laulala beats Tom Shanklin to the outside-centre berth and partners Jamie Roberts.
Toulouse have named a predictably strong side for their meeting with Quins and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Byron Kelleher continue at halfback. Maxime Medard has beaten Clement Poitrenaud to the fullback jersey and starts in a back-three with Yves Donguy and Cedric Heymans. Quins are not letting their Heineken Cup campaign end with a whimper and have named a strong side. Nick Evans and Danny Care are pulling the strings at halfback, while Nick Easter provides the grunt at the base of the scrum.
That eventuality will likely also befall Munster and Northampton in Pool 1, with the Irish giants currently two points clear and set to meet their Premiership rivals next weekend. The Saints host Perpignan at Franklin's Gardens on Sunday and need to reproduce the form that downed Munster in the opening round. The home side have included Ben Foden and Chris Ashton in their back-three after an eventful week which saw England call-ups as well as new contracts for the duo. Shane Geraghty is in at fly-half and has some critics to answer after dropping into the Saxons squad.
Perpignan are out of contention and have rested a number of players including prop Nicolas Mas. Philip Burger, whose sensational try almost sank Munster at Thomond Park, starts at fullback as Jean-Philippe Grandclaude and Gavin Hume form a powerful centre pairing.
Munster have the simpler task of a trip to face Benetton Treviso, though as Perpignan and Northampton found out, winning there is easier said than done. For Munster, Jean de Villiers continues in the No.12 shirt alongside Keith Earls while Niall Ronan takes over at openside from David Wallace - who anchors the scrum in the continued absence of Denis Leamy.
Reigning champions Leinster host Brive at the RDS, with no margin for error in the battle for Pool 6. Jonny Sexton returns to the Leinster backline at fly-half, with Rob Kearney also returning to his normal fullback slot. Isa Nacewa shifts to the wing and Shane Horgan completes the trio. Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy start outside Sexton in the centre and Shane Jennings returns to the back-row alongside Kevin McLaughlin and Jamie Heaslip. England centre Jamie Noon starts for Brive, as does veteran hooker Steve Thompson.
London Irish are level on points with the holders after dispatching Brive for two bonus-points in recent rounds, and the sides are set to meet at the Madejski next weekend. First up for the Exiles however is a Sunday trip to face the Scarlets, who picked up the points when the sides met earlier in the season.
Ryan Lamb is recalled at fly-half by Exiles coach Toby Booth and starts alongside Paul Hodgson. Skipper Bob Casey is joined as always in the second-row by Nick Kennedy and openside Steffon Armitage will be out to show his worth after being retained in the England squad. For the Scarlets, Stephen Jones has failed to recover from a shoulder injury and is replaced at fly-half by Rhys Priestland, who has an all-international centre pairing in Jon Davies and Sean Lamont to call on.
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