Tuesday 23 January 2018

Leicester set sights on quarter-final berth

Leicester will aim to mark their 100th Heineken Cup game in style tomorrow by taking a giant stride towards this season's quarter-finals.

Tigers, reinforced by England fly-half Toby Flood's return to action, tackle Perpignan at Stade Aime Giral.

And Leicester, the only side in this season's tournament with a maximum 10 points from two matches, know a repeat of their 2001 victory in Perpignan would leave them controlling Pool Five.

"Like ourselves, Perpignan have a proud home record and we are expecting a big, physical battle," said Leicester rugby director Richard Cockerill.

"We've won our opening two games in this competition, but Perpignan could be level with us if they win this weekend, so there is everything to play for.

"We have been playing some good stuff and our defence has been good, but we know this is going to be a massive challenge.

"We had a good win at London Irish last week which helps in terms of confidence, and now we have to turn up and show how much this one means to us."

Pool One leaders Northampton - England's solitary Heineken Cup quarter-final representatives last season - will edge closer towards another last-eight appearance if they beat Cardiff Blues at Franklin's Gardens tomorrow evening.

"It is a big match for us and everyone has wanted to play," said Saints rugby director Jim Mallinder, who welcomes back England quartet Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes.

"We want to keep our recent run and home record going. Standards have been high in training, and the players who have been chosen know that they will need to play well against a very tough Blues outfit."

The Blues' list of absentees still includes Wales backs Jamie Roberts and Leigh Halfpenny, but centre Tom Shanklin, lock Bradley Davies and flanker Martyn Williams are among those who return from autumn Test duty.

"Northampton are flying and really setting the pace in England," said Blues boss David Young.

"They have a very strong scrum, which is a points machine for them. They've taken their scrum to a high level.

"We've really got to front-up at scrum time, but they've also got a very good driving lineout and a lot of physical players.

"We have started to show glimpses of where we were at the end of last season, but I think we will have to step up again on Saturday."

Bath coaching chief Sir Ian McGeechan has pinpointed the threat of in-form flanker Stephen Ferris as the west country club face a key Pool Four clash against Ulster in Belfast tomorrow.

McGeechan's men are struggling to make an impact in a group currently dominated by French giants Biarritz, and defeat at Ravenhill could threaten a fifth group stage exit in Bath's last eight European campaigns.

"He is a good player," said McGeechan, who worked with Ireland star Ferris on last year's British and Irish Lions tour in South Africa.

"He would probably have played (Lions) Test rugby if he had stayed fit in South Africa. He's very impressive - strong and quick.

"Ulster have a good back-row, so it's a good challenge for us, but we've got a back-row that can have a huge impact on the game.

"You don't have easy games in Europe. It is more like international rugby where you are trying to get an edge here and there."

Saracens find themselves in a worse position than Bath, having collected a solitary losing bonus point from Pool Two outings against Clermont Auvergne and Leinster.

They effectively face elimination if Vicarage Road visitors Racing Metro triumph tomorrow.

Former England wing David Strettle lines up at outside centre for Saracens, with Noah Cato and James Short filling the wing slots, while highly-rated prospect Owen Farrell continues at fly-half following an impressive display during last weekend's Premiership win against Harlequins.

Sunday's action sees Wasps aiming to keep the pressure on Pool Six favourites Toulouse by visiting Newport Gwent Dragons in a game that has been switched to Cardiff City Stadium after freezing conditions rendered Rodney Parade unplayable.

Jonny Wilkinson's Toulon visit London Irish in Pool Three, with their group rivals Ospreys - minus an injured Lee Byrne and suspended Marty Holah - tackling Munster in Limerick, while a heavyweight Pool Two clash beckons at Stade Marcel Michelin between Clermont and Leinster.

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