9 Apr 2012

Heineken Cup Quarter-Finals Review

The quarter-finals produced the usual dashes of excellence, bravery and tactical nous this weekend, mixed in with a healthy dollop of 'what the hell was he thinking?', as eight teams got cut down to four. Two of the games were frought with tension and proved once more how the European Cup is arguably the most watchable club rugby tournament in the world at the moment.

Unfortunately I wasn't able too watch all the games live as I was busy falling on my arse and spraining my ankle on the Cornish coast! I'm sure the journey home would still have been far less painful than that of the emotions experienced by the losing teams' fans  (even if my injured foot deprived me of the use of the clutch for most of the drive home; creating a rightly terrified girlfriend in the passenger's seat).

I have thankfully seen the games since with a little help from the nifty Sky+ box though. The results were as follows:

Edinburgh 19-14 Toulouse @ Murrayfield
Leinster 34-3 Cardiff Blues @ Aviva Stadium
Munster 16 - 22 Ulster @ Thomond Park
Saracens 3 - 22 Clermont Auvergne @ Vicarage Road

It seems the form book was thrown out the window for the most part, proving this tipster's predictions for the weekend embarassingly wide of the mark for the most part (with the exception of Leinster's crushing of Cardiff).

Edinburgh vs Toulouse

Edinburgh were able to produce an historic result against perrenial favourites Toulouse with a narrow 19-14 victory, backed by almost 38,000 supporters at Murrayfield (a record crowd for a Quarter-final in Britain). The home side over-turned a four point half-time deficit to overcome the four times champions of Europe and book a spot in the semis against Ulster. One wonders why they fall some 34,000 short of that mark for their usual attendance but that is perhaps a question the Scots need to answer rather than myself!

During this game though, they received vocal support and the early run of play gave their supporters a reason to turn up the volume... as Mike Blair capitalised on a high bomb which Toulouse winger Timoci Matanavou failed to scoop up; Blair just about managing to stretch his arm out far enough to reach the tryline. A few penalties were traded between Greg Laidlaw (who put in a great performance) and Lionel Beauxis (who put in an incredibly inept performance) thereafter, before Timoci Matanavou made up for his blunder early in the half with a truly mesmering run from deep, running 60 metres and seemingly evading every single Edinburgh tackler, before pulling out his i-phone and taking a snap for his latest facebook profile picture as he dotted the ball down for 5 points. It has to be said that Edinburgh were missing two players thanks to infringements from Alan Jacobsen and Ross Rennie, who thus were duly sent to the naughty step on the touchline, but it was a great try nonetheless.

William Sevat was similarly shown the yellow card in the second half and Greg Laidlaw duly punished them. After Edinburgh built up a five point lead, Toulouse battered away at the Edinburgh tryline but lacked the usual penetration and execution we tend to expect from their play. Lionel Beaxis also seemed to kick the leather out of the ball every time he received it from fly half, negating a lot of the talent on his outside.Furthermore, Coach Guy Noves stuck to his principle of rubgy being a 22 man game, as the subs rolled on in the last 20 minutes. Often this is seen as a masterstroke when it goes well for them. However, on this occasion it just seemed that he was replacing any player who seemed to be showing some attacking skill with a player who made very little impact. In truth, his decisions had a detrimental impact on the game for Toulouse and helped Edinburgh tremendously. The Scots held out and secured a famous victory, in the process booking themselves a place in the semis as one of the top four sides of Europe. One suspects more difficult tests await them but this can only be good for Scottish rugby. The national side showed sporadic potential during the Six Nations and it was perhaps a touch harsh that they ended up with the wooden spoon. This victory for Edinburgh will hopefully give some of the Scots involved some belief that they can get over the line and win big matches. Perhaps it will give Glasgow (a vastly superior side in my opinion) the shot in the arm they need too and convince them that Scottish sides belong among the elite of european club rugby.

Leinster vs Cardiff

In truth this game was a bit of a mauling, with Leinster coming out on top by 34 points to 3. Cardiff were missing key players (Jamie Roberts being injured while Gavin Henson sacked) and were coming off the back of some horrific form. Leinster meanwhile had been dominating the Pro12. Of course Heineken Cup knockout games are predominantly close and that tendency gave hope for a good contest. Leinster's class told though. Rob Kearney scored two tries, while talisman Brian O'Driscoll and former Auckland Blue Isa Nacewa also got their names on the scoresheet. They were all terrific tries too with pivot Jonny Sexton having an influential hand in much of what Leinster did well. As Stuart Barnes commented....'Leinster have the most fabulous fingertips in Europe'. Of course Cardiff's tactics of continuously kicking the ball high didn't help either and rather played into Leinster's hands when you consider that they had none other than Rob Kearney at fullback (probably the best at fielding them in world rugby along with Cory Jane).

There's not much to add to the report for this game really. I expected Leinster to win this game and they duly delivered. In fact they were even more convincing than most would have predicted. They are the reigning Champions of Europe for good reason and they are gaining a lovely momentum. With Brian O'Driscoll back too (who was sorely missed by Ireland), they have a real leader in the backline who can cope with all that Europe has to offer. Next up are Clermont. Leinster's coach Joe Schmidt will be looking for weaknesses and planning their attacked already. If they can beat them, one would fancy them to retain their crown.

Munster vs Ulster

Ulster conquered Munster in a titanic clash at Thomond Park, invoking memories of '99, the year they won their only European title. Stephen Ferris gave an incredible performance leading the Ulster defence as they made 158 tackles to keep out their Irish foes, thus relegating the Munstermen to the position of third best province in Ireland.

Ulster had raced to a 19 point lead, thanks to a virtuouso effort from Craig Gilroy down the touchline and some accurate kicking from South African international Ruan Pienaar, but had to withhold a Munster fightback as Simon Zebo scored yet another Heineken Cup try (after he had ripped Northampton to shreds in the pool stages) and Ronan O'Gara added more points with the boot. Munster had previously managed some heroic last minute moments this year to salvage wins from nowhere but it was not to be this time, as Ulster's gritty defence proved too strong. The south african core of Johan Muller, Pedrie Wannenberg and Ruan Pienaar seem to have installed a real arrogance to Ulster and that is a good quality as long as it doesn't turn into self-indulgence. With Stephen Ferris doing his best impression of a combination of Serge Betsen and Thierry Duautoir too, they look a very dangerous side.

If you can win at Thomond Park, you can win anywhere in my opinion. They face Edinburgh in their semi and you would have to fancy them to get to the final. For Munster it's a case of betetr luck next year. Thye came close but they didn't show enough and considering they were perhaps lucky in some of the matches in their pool, perhaps this is where they deserved to go out. They will have a new coach next year, as Aussie Tony McGahan has signed on to become the ARU's new 'technical director'.

Saracens vs Clermont

Clermont produced the most complete performance of the round as they trounced Saracens at Vicarage Road, with a convincing scoreline of 22 points to 3. I thought this game would be close and perhaps be settled by who had the better kicker after Barritt and Farrell dealt so well with Fofana and Rougerie in the Six Nations. That did not translate into the same performance in the Heineken Cup though. The 2010 French Champions' victory never looked in doubt as aussie Brock James scored 17 points to banish his memories of 2010 against Leinster, when he caught a touch of the 'Piri Weepu'. He was assured with the boot and controlled the backline nicely. Parra was a general at scrumhalf too as welsh import Lee Byrne got the sole try, thanks to good work from Nathan Hines and Aurelin Rougerie. Sitiveni Sivivatu also had a good gane and seemed to rediscover some of the magic which seemed to have waned during the end of his time in NZ. It was great to see.

For Saracens, it proved that perhaps they have improvements to be made if they want to be at the top of the European tree. They have an outstanding defence and team spirit, but more is needed than reslove at this level. They looked pedestrian in attack and need to show their creativity if they want to go further next year.

Vern Cotter will be rightly proud of his men though. Clermont gave a good all round performance and now that they know that Brock James can survive the big pressure games, they will carry with them a heap of confidence into the semis. They face Leinster in that match. It is going to be a feast of attacking rugby and personally...I can't wait!!!


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