Match preview: Stade Francais v Leeds Carnegie

Leeds Carnegie might not be seeing much of Hendre Fourie for the rest of this winter, but Andy Key is confident he will go out with a bang against crack French outfit Stade Francais this Sunday.

Carnegie head over the channel for a crunch Amlin Challenge Cup assignment against the Pool Four leaders and overwhelming favourites to qualify for the knock-out stages, mindful that marquee flanker Fourie and international hooker Steve Thompson will link up with England the following weekend ahead of the forthcoming Six Nations campaign.

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Despite last Saturday's narrow Aviva Premiership loss at Bath, Carnegie remain in fine spirits following three victories in their past four matches in league and cup, with Fourie having been an influential cog in the club's last two top-flight outings.

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Many shrewd observers feel South African-born Fourie, who qualifies for England on residency grounds, will be handed some extended game time in the Six Nations jamboree in February and March, with the 31-year-old sending out an unequivocal message to selectors after a dominant performance against Red Rose skipper Lewis Moody last weekend.

And director of rugby Key is urging him to carry on where he left off against French Top 14 side Stade, more used to the surroundings of the more grandiose Heineken Cup than the Amlin Challenge Cup.

Key said: "At the weekend, he was world-class; it didn't matter whether it was with ball in hand, at the breakdown, in defence or carrying it, he was unbelievably awesome.

"Hopefully, he can continue that performance and put even bigger pressure on selectors for the England games.

"Going into this weekend, we'll be looking for that type of performance from him again and I know he will against what will be a very strong and talented Stade Francais side.

"Hendre is a real down-to-earth guy. A lot of where he has got down to now has been down to massive hard work, determination and perseverance. You can only applaud players like that.

"He's had to earn his stripes as a South African over here, learning his trade and he's overjoyed he can pull on the England shirt."

After building some real momentum in back-to-back cup victories over Crociati and league games against Gloucester and Bath, Key admits that in an ideal world, Carnegie would be on Premiership business again this season, having ignited their season following a real lowpoint in the shattering 51-18 loss at Harlequins on November 28.

More especially with Fourie and Thompson being on deck this weekend before switching focus to England, potentially until well into March with Martin Johnson's troops ending their campaign with a home clash with Ireland on March 19.

But Carnegie must play with the cards they are dealt with and while the Challenge Cup is a comfortable second behind their bread-and-butter priority of Premiership survival, Sunday's encounter should at least possess all the intensity of a top-flight clash against their world-renowned Parisien opponents.

On whether he wishes Carnegie were on Premiership duty this weekend, Key admitted: "The answer is yes. I think this is a time where we would have massively enjoyed continuing in the Premiership.

"I think when we stopped and went into the two back-to-back (cup) games with Crociati, we said it was good we had the opportunity just to focus on performance and getting ourselves sorted.

"And that came at the right time, although the Newcastle game being cancelled didn't, as we felt we were in a really good place. But I also think the last few games have proved that.

"For us, it's about maintaining our performance, standards and confidence and belief within the squad.

"We need to do that in the next four games and what better way of doing it than against one of Europe's very best away from home, who last week made a Toulouse side look quite ordinary on their own patch.

"It's a huge challenge for us and I know every player in the squad are massively looking forward to it."

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