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England's sole surivivors highlight poor standards

FOR THE first time in the 12 years in which they have been involved in European competition, England will have only one representative in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup.

Moreover, the sole survivors, Northampton, must return in April to face Munster at Thomond Park.

Northampton, who lost 12-9 to the southerners on Friday, qualified as the eighth seed on a weekend when England's other two hopes, Leicester and London Irish, fell by the wayside.

"The experience of playing somewhere like Thomond Park will benefit our players enormously," Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder said. "On another day we would have won."

That other day may come on April 9-11, once the Six Nations has ended.

Since European competition began in 1995-96, English clubs have won the title six times. By contrast, France have four quarter-finalists, of whom two, Toulouse and Stade Francais, will play each other.

England face the prospect of not providing a semi-finalist for the first time in seven years. It appears to be a reflection on the often poor standard of this season's Guinness Premiership.

But if the English seek consolation, they have only to look back to last term when Toulouse, by the skin of their teeth, were the only French qualifiers.

"It's not a concern but it would be if it happened again next season," Mark McCafferty, chief executive of Premier Rugby, the umbrella body for the Premiership clubs, said. "There could have been a massive upset on Friday night (in Limerick) and it's the composure these teams like Munster and Leinster have accumulated which makes the difference. Some of our teams -- Northampton and London Irish -- are still accumulating that experience."

Meanwhile, Leicester and the Ospreys were today awaiting a European Rugby Cup response over a 16th player blunder involving Wales fullback Lee Byrne.

The Welsh region -- set to play Biarritz in the quarters -- could face a fine, with tournament organisers set to probe second-half events in Swansea after the Tigers lodged a complaint.

Leicester claim Byrne was involved in helping to thwart an opposition attack. He had gone off suffering from a dislocated and bloodied toe, being replaced by centre Sonny Parker, but Byrne was then sent back on three minutes later without any of his team-mates going off for around 60 seconds before fly-half Dan Biggar departed.

© The Times, London