English clubs chase European qualification
April 24, 2008
Some of England's past, present and future will be on European duty this weekend.
Eye-catching youngsters Shane Geraghty and Adam Powell will link up with players like un-capped duo Richard Haughton and Nick Kennedy and World Cup winners Mike Catt and Richard Hill, with the aim of propelling their teams to a first ever Heineken Cup Final.
Of the six English clubs involved in European semi-finals this weekend, only two currently lie in the top six of the Guinness Premiership, but six English clubs will be in the top twelve seeds under the new structure for the Heineken Cup next season. Success for London Irish or Saracens could raise that number to seven.
London Irish go into their first ever Heineken Cup semi-final against the aristocrats of European rugby, Toulouse, having already disposed of fellow Top 14 side USA Perpignan in the quarter-final.
Shane Geraghty, one of the most notable of these youngsters, already boasts two caps for England and marshals an exciting and pacy back line of English players. That group, including England Saxons Delon Armitage and Topsy Ojo have increasingly grabbed the headlines, even without considering the merits of either Paul Hodgson or Peter Richards at scrum-half.
As with a host of young players across the Guinness Premiership, Geraghty will be hoping his performances guide his club to success, but also thrust him into contention for a place on England's tour to New Zealand in the summer.
Geraghty guided Irish to a win over local rivals Harlequins at the weekend and that win put the Exiles in the frame for Heineken Cup qualification next season through the league. However, should Irish beat Toulouse on Saturday, they will automatically qualify for the Heineken Cup next season and gain a seventh qualifying place for English clubs.
Hoping to join Geraghty on tour with England will be scrum-half duo Paul Hodgson and Peter Richards. Richards has recently made a return from injury and started at outside centre for the match against Quins, later moving to scrum-half.
Hodgson took his opportunity whilst Richards was injured to cement his place in the Exiles team and win his first England cap. Both will be hoping to find favour with new England boss Martin Johnson for a place in the New Zealand squad.
Helping this group of young and relatively inexperienced players through the rigours of a domestic and European season, has been player/coach Mike Catt, who now has the opportunity to add another Heineken Cup Final appearance to his long list of honours, having won the tournament with Bath ten years ago.
The axis of Hodgson or Richards, Geraghty and Catt is surely key to Irish's chances of success, as well as the omnipresent threat of lineout kings Bob Casey and the uncapped Nick Kennedy. The pair had an 85% success rate in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup and an 89% success rate in the Guinness Premiership.
They have the opportunity to spring players such as Delon Armitage, Seilala Mapusua, Sailosi Tagicakibau and Topsy Ojo, who scored the Exiles' only try last Saturday.
Another pacey Englishman has been making headlines for fellow Heineken Cup semi-finalists Saracens all season.
Twenty-seven-year-old Richard Haughton was previously thought of as a sevens specialist, but has added another dimension to his game this season, already having played more Premiership matches this season than for any of the past three. Haughton has also scored five Guinness Premiership tries and five more in the Heineken Cup, making him the pool stages' top scorer.
That excellent form has led to his Director of Rugby, Alan Gaffney calling for him to be included in the England senior squad.
On Sunday at the Ricoh Arena, Haughton will face perhaps his sternest test when he comes up against former All Black winger Doug Howlett.
Twenty-nine-year-old Howlett has 62 caps for New Zealand and scored in Munster's last Heineken Cup match against Gloucester Rugby at Kingsholm.
Not that Haughton can concentrate solely on Howlett, as the All Black is just one of a triumvirate of southern hemisphere three-quarters and Haughton will have seen how both Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki posed Gloucester problems in the previous round.
Man of the Match for Saracens in their previous match against Ospreys was Richard Hill.
The former England man, who also represented the British and Irish Lions, has announced he will retire at the end of the season, having struggled manfully against injury since that World Cup win in 2003.
Hill is now restricted to a few big matches here and there and will not have played since the defeat of Ospreys in the quarter-final, but Gaffney seems set to hand the 34 year-old former Salisbury RFC man the chance of a last hurrah, firstly at the Ricoh Arena and potentially at the Millennium Stadium for the Heineken Cup Final.
As with the Exiles, victory for Saracens would guarantee them another season of Heineken Cup rugby, although the seventh place for English clubs is dependent on how far Toulouse progress.
In the European Challenge Cup, Newcastle Falcons and Worcester Warriors will be looking to reach the final and seal an unlikely place in next year's Heineken Cup, but with so much up in the air, Bath Rugby and Sale Sharks will know that winning the Challenge Cup may also provide their best route into Europe.
For Worcester, a win would give them their first appearance in a European Final since they met French side Auch in the final of the European Shield in 2005.
Under former Wales coach Mike Ruddock, Worcester have had a strong finish to their Guinness Premiership season, with wins over Leicester Tigers and Gloucester Rugby and a late defeat to Bath Rugby last Saturday. Off the field, their growth has mirrored that of the professional game in England, with ambitious plans for further development of Sixways that will make it one of the best purpose built rugby facilities in Europe.
Their form is in direct contrast to that of Newcastle Falcons, who have lost seven straight Guinness Premiership matches.
Despite opting for surgery in the summer, England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson will be available for this match and Newcastle can also call on the talents of Carl Hayman, Toby Flood, Jamie Noon and Mathew Tait, all of whom are capable of posing any defence problems, particularly given that the European Challenge Cup is now their sole focus.
As for Bath Rugby and Sale Sharks, both still have hopes of making the Guinness Premiership semi-final with top four finishes.
Olly Barkley has had the weight of a court case lifted from his shoulders, although the burden does not seem to have unduly affected his form as he has consistently been the spark for Bath in a successful season to date.
For Sale Sharks, Charlie Hodgson has performed a similar role and is the most experienced of a clutch of English fly-halves hoping to impress Martin Johnson in what remains of the season.
The following is the order of qualification for English clubs into next season's Heineken Cup.
Six places are available however the club from England or France that goes furthest in the Heineken Cup will win for their country an additional qualification berth.
Therefore should London Irish beat Toulouse, they will secure a seventh Heineken Cup place for English clubs.
This order also means that any English club reaching the Heineken Cup Final will guarantee themselves entry into the tournament again next season.
Finally, each English club will take the highest qualification spot available to them. So, were Bath Rugby or Sale Sharks to win the European Challenge Cup, but also to qualify for the Heineken Cup by virtue of finishing in the top four of the league, they would claim the place due to them for their league position and there would be no qualifier from the European Challenge Cup. Rather, this place would go back to the club finishing fifth in the league.
Premiership Clubs will qualify for a place in the European Cup in the following order:
1. European Cup Winner
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