Heineken Cup 2014 wrap: Munster and Saracens reach semi-finals
Heineken Cup wrap: Munster, Saracens and French duo Toulon and Clermont Auverge reach the semi-finals
After months of wrangling over the future of European rugby, the latest delays to a new agreement were soon forgotten in a pulsating weekend of northern hemisphere rugby in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup.
The top-eight clubs in Europe produced 183 points from the four matches across Saturday and Sunday with almost half of them coming from 16 tries.
Clermont Auvergne scrum-half Morgan Parra and Munster outside-half Ian Keatley were the round’s top scorers with 17 points each from the tee, and Saracens and England wing Chris Ashton went over twice to maintain his status as the competition’s top try-scorer this season.
The last eight also had a controversial moment just four minutes into the match between Ulster and Saracens as the hosts had full-back Jared Payne sent off for a reckless challenge on his opposite number Alex Goode, who had to leave the field on a stretcher.
Ulster’s New Zealand import will now face a disciplinary hearing in Dublin on Wednesday.
In the opening match of the round, Munster maintained their European charge with a crushing six-try 47-23 win over four-time champions Toulouse at a bouncing Thomond Park in Limerick as their power game laid the foundations for a dominant win.
Replacement flanker CJ Stander had a storming match on his 24th birthday as he topped the player stats when he came off the bench in the first half for injured captain Peter O’Mahony, which included powering over for the Irish side’s third try.
Keith Earls, who started on the bench in 2008 as Munster defeated the French side in the final at the Millennium Stadium, had begun the try fest inside five minutes.
Keatley and Luke McAlister traded kicks at goal, but it was the second half which saw Munster’s driving maul come to the fore as prop Dave Kilcoyne scored in the opening minute before Stander’s effort four minutes later.
Toulouse hit back through former All Black Hosea Gear before Casey Laulala strolled in to score Munster’s fourth try.
Joe Tekori’s try for the French side with nine minutes remaining looked to have been a token consolation, but Munster weren’t finished and added a further two tries through wing Simon Zebo and 2008 captain Paul O’Connell who drove over for his first European try since 2009.
In the second match of the day, Clermont Auvergne put their 74-match unbeaten run in all competitions at the Stade Marcel Michelin on the line against Leicester Tigers.
That record looked safe in the first half as the home side stormed to a 16-0 lead with a try from France centre Wesley Fofana and three penalties from Parra, but the Tigers hit back with a converted Jordan Crane try before Parra added a fourth kick before the break.
Leicester took inspiration from young outside-half Owen Williams in the second half as the Welshman clawed his side back into the game from the tee, with his creative kicking from hand also causing the Clermont defence problems.
But Les Jaunards survived a late siege in their 22 in the final quarter to extend their home record in a 22-16 win.
There was a party atmosphere in Belfast as Ulster and Saracens met in the last eight for the second time in two years, with the new stand at Ravenhill open for the first time to boost capacity to over 17,000.
The Irish side had gone unbeaten in the pool stages, which included doing the double over the Tigers, but they had fallen to Saracens at Twickenham last year and had revenge in mind to derail the Aviva Premiership leaders’ hopes of doing the double.
French referee Jerôme Garces didn’t endear himself to the raucous Ravenhill crowd after sending off Payne early in the game and the writing was seemingly on the wall for the Pro12 side, but they took the lead through a Ruan Pienaar penalty.
Despite the numerical advantage, Saracens struggled to find their feet and had just an unconverted Ashton try for their efforts in the first half as the injured Pienaar ignored the medics to battle on to convert twice more for an unlikely 9-5 lead for the home side at the break.
Having already lost influential hooker Rory Best in the first half, Pienaar lasted just five minutes into the second half.
Three minutes later, Sarries were ahead as Mouritz Botha went over before Ashton was in acres of space 20 minutes later to cruise in for his second as he collected a clever cross-field kick from a misfiring Owen Farrell.
Unable to shake off the Ulstermen, Sarries saw their lead slashed to two points as Paddy Jackson kicked two late penalties and their famous wolfpack had to withstand the mother of all attacks as Ulster went in search of territory to attempt a kick at goal.
And the English side’s discipline must be praised for withstanding 35 phases of play to hold out for a 17-15 win.
In the final match at the Stade Felix Mayol, reigning champions Toulon survived losing captain and goal-kicker Jonny Wilkinson in the first half to overcome Leinster 29-14 in front of a typically fired up crowd on the Côte d’Azur.
Wilkinson and Leinster outside-half Jimmy Gopperth got the only points of the first half as the sides went in level at 6-6 at the break.
But the RaboDirect Pro12 leaders were unable to live with the brute strength offered by a star-studded side and a destructive masterclass from former London Irish flanker Steffon Armitage in the second half.
However, it was local boy Xavier Chiocci who got the game’s first try five minutes after the restart after Matt Giteau had earlier kicked a penalty.
The disappointing Gopperth hit back with a penalty nine minutes later before former Wallaby winger Drew Mitchell went over for Toulon’s second try mid-way through the half.
A bizarre situation on 64 minutes saw someone in Toulon’s backroom staff run on with the kicking tee forcing them to kick at goal from inside their half despite it being outside of Giteau’s range, but up stepped exiled England full-back Delon Armitage to smash it between the posts.
With 11 minutes remaining, Leinster scored their only try of the match as replacement flanker Jordi Murphy went over.
But it was scant consolation in what turned out to be Brian O’Driscoll’s final match in Europe as Toulon continued to disrupt Leinster’s attacks at the breakdown and with two minutes remaining Giteau added a fourth penalty to seal the result.
Heineken Cup semi-finals:
Saracens vs Clermont Auvergne, Twickenham, Saturday 26 April 2014 | Kick-Off 15:40 BST
Toulon vs Munster, Stade Velodrome, Sunday 27 April 2014 | Kick-Off 16:30 BST