Saracens produced one of the great European comebacks in Paris as they overturned a half-time deficit of 25-15 against Racing Metro to run out worthy 37-28 winners. Owen Farrell was the star, kicking 32 points as Sarries overcame the early injury of winger David Strettle, who was stretchered off after a blow to the head. Racing seized the early initiative but fell apart in the second half as fly-half Juan Martin Fernandez totally lost his composure and the ability to manage the game. In contrast, the young Englishman Farrell was completely immune to the vociferous crowd and again showed his ability to deal with the big occasions. An early second-half try by Sarries’ Chris Wyles signified a shift in momentum and the English side never looked back. The victory and the fact that the Parisians were denied a bonus point meant Saracens took control of the group and must be favourites to qualify as they face bottom side Edinburgh next.
Harlequins strolled into the quarter-finals as they laid the ghost of last season to rest in an impressive 47-8 victory over Connacht at the Stoop. Last year, they suffered a loss to away to the Irish side at this stage but the Twickenham based outfit out were never in any danger of a repeat. It what was popular winger Ugo Monye’s 200th game for the Quins but the game was marred by four yellow cards in the second half as three Connacht players and Quins’ Joe Marler spent time off the pitch for a variety of indiscretions. It was a competitive first half as Connacht restricted Quins to just a penalty try but in the second half when facing less men, Quins were rampant. Tom Williams scored twice, while Monye capped his momentous day with a superb solo try and substitutes George Lowe and Ben Botica rounded off the afternoon with late scores. A win next weekend will guarantee a home quarter-final, and with an average of 45 points a game in the Heineken Cup this year, Quins will be confident of doing so.
In Pool 2, Leicester drew 15-15 with Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium to set up a winner takes all clash with Toulouse next weekend. The draw meant Osprey’s interest in the competition has ended and that Leicester can no longer secure a home quarter-final in the next stage. Ospreys started better than their visitors and held a 10-3 lead at half-time. Leicester responded well and bounced back with tries from Ben Youngs and Niall Morris but were pegged back by a Jonathan Spratt try – fly-half Dan Biggar missed the resulting conversion. Biggar missed five tricky kicks in all and in such a close contest that really made the difference and Leicester were able to cling on and keep their hopes alive going into the final week. A full strength Tigers at home are a formidable threat and despite Toulouse currently occupying the top spot after their win against Treviso, Leicester will be confident of progressing at Welford Road.
Ulster booked their spot in the quarter-finals with a 23-6 victory over Glasgow Warriers at Ravenhill. As Northampton didn’t secure a bonus point in their victory against Castres, the Irish side sealed top spot and will be looking for another win next weekend to ensure a home quarter-final. After losing the final last season, Ulster have been imperious this season and are rightly listed as favourites for an assault on the European title. In poor conditions on Friday night, Ulster wore down the Scottish side, with No8 Nick Williams personifying the tactic with a wonderful pick up and drive for the first try. Further scores by Jared Payne and Darren Cave sealed the victory but with both Williams and Paddy Jackson limping off they will hope it hasn’t come at too high a cost. Northampton kept their faint hopes of qualification as best runners up alive with an 18-12 win over Castres, but by not sealing a bonus point, they could fall short next week. They came out on top of a kicking duel but it was the performance of England lock Courtney Lawes that stole the headlines. After missing the autumn internationals through injury and losing the limelight to Wasps’ Joe Launchbury, Lawes helped Northampton exert their dominance in both the scrum and the loose. They need a big victory over Glasgow next weekend and other results to go their way but their Heineken Cup adventure seems over for this season.
The Galaticos of Toulon served up a thriller against the Cardiff Blues as both teams won bonus points in a pulsating 45-25 victory for the French side. Despite the Welsh outfit being boosted with the return of full-back Leigh Halfpenny from injury they couldn’t keep up with their hosts and were outscored by seven tries to four. It meant Toulon qualified for the quarter-finals and left the Blues facing the prospect of dropping out of the top-six European seeds for next season, which could lead to further continental misery. They now have to beat Sale next week to retain their status but with both sides so out of form, it is impossible to call. Such a resounding victory capped a big week for Toulon who announced the triple signing of Bath’s Michael Classens and the Springbok duo of Bryan Habana and John Smit for next year. They are rightly considered favourites this year with an already star studded line up including the likes of Andrew Sheridan, Bakkies Botha, Matt Giteau and Jonny Wilkinson and a home quarter final will further stack the odds in their favour.
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BIOGRAPHY: Adam Lallana
BIOGRAPHY: Nacho Monreal