Heineken Cup 2014: Ulster beat Leicester to seal home last-eight tie
Heineken Cup 2014: Gareth Llewellyn-Stevens reflects on the final weekend of pool matches in Europe
Irish province Ulster ripped up the record books to hand Leicester Tigers their first home European defeat in eight years with a 22-19 to finish the pool stages as the only unbeaten team in the tournament. Mark Anscombe’s side produced a stunning comeback from 19-9 down which guarantees top-seeding and a home quarter-final in April against the eighth seed Saracens, with South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar scoring all 22 points in a superb man-of-the-match performance. With home support a huge advantage for Ulster, a redeveloped Ravenhill could spur the Ulstermen to a final berth at the Millennium Stadium in May, but to lift the European Cup for the first time since 1999 they will need to do what no other winner of the tournament has done: go through the tournament unbeaten.
Wales lock Ian Evans faces missing this year’s Six Nations tournament after a red card on Friday night in Leinster. The Ospreys giant was alleged to have deliberately and recklessly stamped on the head of Irish international Mike McCarthy, with the lock leaving the field with his head covered in blood. With a two to 52-week ban available to the disciplinary committee, it will be bad news for Wales head coach Warren Gatland, who is short of options in the boilerhouse to partner Alun Wyn Jones, and also has problems in the front row with Lions stalwarts Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones, who both went off at the RDS, joining tight-head prop Gethin Jenkins as injury concerns ahead of the first match against Italy on 1 February. Waiting in the wings to replace Evans, who doesn’t have the cleanest of records which will count against him should a punishment be handed out, is Luke Charteris (Perpignan) and Andrew Coombs (Dragons), while Ryan Jones, who lasted just 29 minutes against Leinster, can also switch from the back row to lock.
Parce que Toulon
The reigning champions came through a tough test against Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun to guarantee a money-spinning home quarter-final, but were camped on their tryline for much of the second half, doing enough to get a win courtesy of Jonny Wilkinson’s kicking and some resilient defending at the death. Bernard Laporte left Rudi Wulf, Maxime Mermoz and Frederic Michalak on the bench in a match-day squad also short of international power houses Martin Castrogiovanni, Bryan Habana and Ali Williams, but while the French club failed to add to their 15 tries from their first five pool matches, their forwards, led by former England international Steffon Armitage, produced a powerful performance to frustrate the Warrior nation and end their slim hopes of qualifying for the Amlin quarter-finals. Toulon may not have produced their attacking best which saw tries galore at the Stade Mayol against Cardiff in October or L’Allianz Riviera earlier this month against Cardiff Blues, but with just one defeat in six matches, but with a squad dominated by experienced internationals and World Cup winners from across the globe, they will be confident of defeating all before them wherever they play.
Dreaming of Cardiff
After the Federation Française de Rugby (FFR) pulled out of hosting this year’s finals weekend from 23-24 May, the ERC awarded it to Cardiff after a new bidding process and we now know the quarter-finals and the semi-final draws. With the top four sides securing home advantage and three of them boasting arguably the most boisterous supporters in European rugby, April’s clashes promise to fantastic occasions. Ulster will face Saracens at Ravenhill in a reverse of last year’s quarter-final which Saracens won 27-16 at Twickenham, but whilst the north London side have lost twice so far in the tournament to finish second to Toulouse in Pool 3, they are the tournament’s top try scorers with 29. Reigning champions Toulon, who are known to switch high-profile home matches from the Stade Mayol to the L’Allianz Riviera (Nice) or Stade Velodrome (Marseille) will take on Leinster. Last year’s beaten finalists Clemont-Auvergne will host Leicester Tigers, with Munster hosting four-time winners Toulouse at Thomond Park in a repeat of the 2008 final, which Munster won 16-13 at the Millennium Stadium. The semi-final draws will see Ulster/Saracens host Clermont/Leicester and Toulon/Leinster host Munster/Toulouse on the 25/26/27 April. In the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals, which is dominated by Aviva Premiership sides which have won the tournament before, 2008 winners Bath host Brive, 2003 winners Wasps host 2006 winners Gloucester, last year’s beaten finalists Stade Français host three-time winners Harlequins in a repeat of the 2011 final, which Quins won 19-18 at the Cardiff City Stadium, and 2002 and 2005 winners Sale host 2009 winners Northampton Saints.