x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Barcelona to enjoy French rugby flavour in Heineken Cup's history

Perpignan and Toulon, the French Top 14 sides, will represent Catalonian rugby for the first time in the iconic football arena.

Perpignan and Toulon, the French Top 14 sides, will make history on Saturday night by playing the first Heineken Cup rugby match to take place in Barcelona's Olympic Stadium.

Perpignan have long held an ambition to play a European knockout fixture in the Catalonian capital and the match in the Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys will be the 89th venue to host Heineken Cup rugby.

The Spanish city is the spiritual and cultural heart of Catalonia, while Perpignan lies at the centre of northern Catalonia across the border. The blood red and golden hues of the club's team strip resonate strongly with their Spanish brothers — they are the colours of the Catalonian flag, known as La Senyera, and feature on the Barcelona club badge.

Barcelona is known the world over for its football team — they are 20 times champions of Spain and three-times Champions League winners after all — and yet despite four Heineken Cup knockout appearances and seven Top 14 titles Perpignan's rugby side are a relatively unknown quantity there. Saturday's clash aims to cement ties not only between the two symbolic Catalonian cities, but also the two clubs that represent the proud Catalonian nation in each sport.

"Rugby takes place throughout the world, but in Catalonia it is a minority sport," said Ignasi Planas, the President of the Catalan Rugby Federation. "The concept of a great Catalonian rugby club in the image of Barça in soccer is the dream from now on."

The capacity at Perpignan's Stade Aimé Giral is a modest 14,377, so moving to the 55,000-capacity Olympic Stadium not only makes cultural sense but the finance stacks up.

To add extra frisson to the fixture Toulon have won both encounters between the two sides this season, including the moved match to Marseille's atmospheric Stade Véledrome. To add insult to injury Toulon occupy seventh place in the Top 14, the spot above Perpignan.

Perry Freshwater, the England prop, moved from Leicester to Perpignan in 2003. Despite playing for the Tigers in two European Cup finals he believes that this encounter will be one of the most explosive

European matches in which he has played during his 50 appearances in the competition.

"This has all the ingredients for being a real firecracker of a game," said Freshwater, who shares the club captaincy with Nicolas Mas.

"It's a massive match not only for the Catalan identity but also for rugby and financially for the club. Barcelona is a major market to tap in to and it's great for rugby to be on such a big stage in a famous football city such as Barcelona. That brings pressure in itself and there will be a lot of expectancy on us to perform."

Perpignan come into the clash on the back of a humbling 25-24 defeat to league leaders Toulouse - only their second loss to the four-times Heineken Cup victors at the Stade Aimé Giral in 11 years - and by moving the fixture to Spain they lose a crucial advantage.

There have been 56 quarter-final matches in the Heineken Cup, and only 13 victories for visiting teams. Of those 13 successes, four of those were in matches moved away from the home side's stadium. What

Perpignan gain in gate revenues and cultural roots by staging this fixture in Barcelona, they could lose face with a defeat.

Toulon have no such worries and travel to Spain having thumped Stade Francais 38-10 last weekend. The victory was marked by the club debut of Gavin Henson, the Wales international, who played outside Jonny Wilkinson. It was a potent combination as Henson set up a try and also scored one.

Wilkinson contributed 18 points in that match. Incredibly it will be the England and British and Irish Lions fly-half's first appearance in a Heineken Cup quarter-final, having played the majority of his club career with relegation-threatened Newcastle.

And according to Joe van Niekerk, the captain of star-studded Toulon, last week's victory is just the tonic his side need before facing up to Perpignan in their new-found Catalan cauldron. "We are highly motivated and the performance against Stade will really help us to prepare," said the former Springbok.

"The atmosphere in Barcelona will be amazing. We will be taking around 6,000 fans with us and they will make enough noise to sound like 10,000. I'm really looking forward to playing in front of a massive crowd, in a great stadium. We will be very focused and anything can happen in a one-off game."