Heineken Cup wrap: Saracens progress as Leicester & Quins exit
Heineken Cup wrap: The semi-final line-up is confirmed after a pulsating weekend of European rugby. James Thompson reports
Toulon edge Leicester in thriller
All the points may have come from the boots of Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood but it was still a compelling contest between Toulon and Leicester Tigers. Wilkinson won his battle of master versus the apprentice as Toulon ran out 21-15 winners. He was simply world-class. He ran the game beautifully and once again his kicking was nothing short of exemplary. After signing a one-year contract extension and postponing retirement for another year, this display may even lead to another Lions tour this summer as he showed he still has the ability at the top level. Leicester gave their all but they simply had no response to the strong running of Bakkies Botha, Chris Masoe and Steffon Armitage. Toulon’s star-studded side have been aptly nicknamed the Galaticos and while they are a rag tag collection of world-class stars, much has been made about their team spirit and unity. However, with Wilkinson captaining the side and leading by example, they had the ideal inspiration in their ranks to bring the side together and they responded brilliantly. Many have criticised his decision to sit further back in big games but he managed the game expertly, allowing his centre’s Matt Giteau and Mathieu Basteraud to hit the line and make yards every time. Lions coach Warren Gatland has stated that he wouldn’t consider any French based players for his squad, but with Wilkinson in this sort of mood, he may have to change that line of thinking.
Sarries edge Ulster
Saracens kept their hopes of a historic double alive as they beat Ulster 27-16 in front of a record-breaking Heineken Cup quarter-final crowd of 37,888 at Twickenham. It was perhaps two of their most high-profile players that they had to thank for their progression, as Chris Ashton returned to form and Owen Farrell continued his emergence as a genuine world-class fly-half. Farrell was masterful as he dispatched six of his seven kicks and continued to prove he can control a game on the biggest of occasions. For Ashton, this was a reminder of his undoubted talent, and after enduring a miserable campaign for England in the Six Nations, it was a chance for him to prove himself at England’s HQ. For his try, he burst past two covering defenders and finished exuberantly with the Ash Splash making a return as he couldn’t contain his obvious delight. They were helped by the likes of Will Fraser, who’s blistering form should see him rewarded an England call-up sooner rather than later, and Brad Barritt, who was once again their defensive lynchpin, among others. For Ulster, who finished runners-up last year, the loss is an obvious disappointment but their season has begun to slow after their blistering start. Their 14-game unbeaten streak seems a distant memory now and with international call-ups and injuries disrupting their rhythm, it was no surprise to see them fall to a well-drilled and organised Saracens side who simply give nothing away.
Munster march to a record 10th semi-final
Munster equalled Toulouse’s record of reaching 10 semi-finals, showing their European pedigree as they beat English champions Harlequins 18-12 at the Stoop. The Irish side may no longer be the force of old but it was their senior players who were simply irresistible against Quins. Veteran fly-half Ronan O’Gara was the hero as he kicked all their points but it was the return of legendary second row Paul O’Connell that seemed to really galvanise the side. He was simply peerless in the line out as he disrupted Quins and secured the ball time and time again. Many will have justifiably questioned if he could reach his previous heights but if he continues in this form, another Lions tour may not be out of the question. He was ably assisted by both James Downey and Peter O’Mahony who were hugely physical, both offensively and defensively. While the score-line suggest a close encounter, Harlequins were simply blown away as they had no answer for the Irish sides resolute defence, and while they will be disappointed to lose at home, they are still a young side finding their way at this level. In truth, they have suffered a blip in form as of late and Conor O’Shea must focus his side if they are to make the Aviva Premiership play-offs and keep their season alive. For Munster they now travel to France to face Clermont where they will be underdogs but after Sunday’s performance, where Quins started slight favourites, that tag seems to suit them quite well.
Clermont thrash Montpellier to progress
Clermont won the battle of the French sides as they eventually overcame Montpellier in a comprehensive 36-14 victory. It means they reach the semi-finals for the second year in a row, and with a home tie in the next round they must feel confident of going one step further this time. Although Montpellier started the game better, with Benoit Paillaugue kicking three penalties to put them 9-3 up, Clermont could draw inspiration from their 58-match unbeaten run. Wesley Fofana, one of the few French players to emerge with credit in the Six Nations, scored after collecting Morgan Parra’s deft chip through before captain Aurelien Rougerie was wonderfully set up by his fellow wing Sitiveni Sivivatu. Sivivatu added the third in the second half as he beat three men before Lee Byrne and Napolioni Nalaga added late scores to give the score-line a real gloss. Much like fellow French side Toulon, Clermont don’t just have a strong starting XV, they have real quality on the bench and in an elite competition such as this, the impact from substitutes can make all the difference. With such an impressive unbeaten home record and with the depth of quality they have, Clermont must remain favourites to reach the final.