Thursday, January 12, 2006
Other Tournaments: Heineken Cup, Six Nations starts early for English stars
Bath, Wasps and Leicester face Heineken Cup games with a potentially big impact on the national side
Wednesday January 11, 2006
The Six Nations Championship does not start until next month but England's prospects for 2006 and beyond will be easier to assess by Sunday night. Toulouse versus Wasps and Leicester versus Stade Français will be occasions as intense as major internationals and the English sense the weekend's results will have repercussions outside the immediate confines of Heineken Cup qualification.
At Wasps, in particular, they recognise that Saturday's encounter in the south of France is about more than simply resuscitating their slim hopes of reaching the knock-out stages. A victory is a necessity to avoid eviction but so is stopping the French from generating psychological momentum in the build-up to next year's World Cup. England have no option but to perform heroics on Gallic soil if they are to win that tournament; the view at Wasps is that success this weekend would also be a perfect Six Nations aperitif.
It will not be easy. Aside from their famous pool win in Perpignan two years ago en route to winning the title itself, Wasps have won only once in four other trips to France in the Heineken Cup. They have never played in Toulouse, while England have scored only one Test victory across the Channel since the game went professional and that was tryless. But England's champion club for the past three years are intent on striking a blow for country as well as club. "If we can do a good job in Toulouse I think it would give the England lads the confidence to believe they could go to Paris in the Six Nations and win," said the coach Shaun Edwards yesterday. "They're probably going to have to do that to win the championship."
The Wasps players are equally pumped. "Even after losing to Llanelli and thinking we were out of the tournament we were still looking forward to the Toulouse game," said the England wing Tom Voyce. "They're the champions of France and we're the champions of England . . . it's going to be like an international. A few years ago we were winning games in France. Now we've gone a couple of years when, by and large, we haven't. English clubs like ourselves have to be winning over there because the French draw confidence from being impregnable at home. England want players who can go over saying, 'We've won here with our clubs, there's no reason to be intimidated.'"
Bath's trip to Bourgoin on Friday night and Leicester's home tie with Stade Français on Sunday will be further benchmarks and Voyce admits the announcement of England's Six Nations squad a week today is a further incentive. "In the back of people's minds they'll be wanting to impress Andy Robinson. If you play well in Toulouse, Andy's going to see it and say, 'That's the kind of guy I want in my side.' It's definitely another reason why a lot of the English boys can't wait for the weekend."
The same sentiments are shared by Joe Worsley, the flanker who along with Lawrence Dallaglio is desperate to regain his international place. "This is the closest indicator you'll get, bar a grand final, to how people will react in a game of international rugby," said Worsley yesterday. Edwards already reckons England should pick both Dallaglio and Worsley in their starting back row against Wales on February 4. "Everyone's playing for their spots, aren't they? If they deliver at the weekend I'm sure Mr Robinson will have a very serious look at them. I think Joe Worsley, after Richie McCaw, is up there among the best No7s in the world. When you come up against someone like McCaw you need someone who is bigger and stronger and Joe fits that bill."
Just as intriguing will be England's response if Wasps were to win in Toulouse. In Edwards's view the reason Stade have failed to beat Wasps in their last two meetings on English soil is at least partly because of the blitz defensive style his team favour. "We have quite an aggressive defensive system and I don't think French teams are particularly used to that," he says. "They're used to an 'up-and-out' defence and we've taken them by surprise a few times." England, though, have stuck to a drift defensive pattern which, in Edwards's opinion, has curtailed the Test careers of several Wasp backs. "I think it has held a few of our players back and harmed their chances of playing for England more than they have done."
If Josh Lewsey and Stuart Abbott can impress in midfield on Saturday opposite the splendid Yannick Jauzion, there may yet be a case for a rethink. Meanwhile Toulouse, with a bench reflecting their superior financial muscle, will seek to squeeze Wasps at source before cutting loose. Will the visitors be able to cope? "You've got to hang in there sometimes," mutters Edwards. "A lot of it comes down to pure bottle, desire, bravery, call it what you want." England's Six Nations chances could hinge on the outcome.