Best of the Weekend: European quarter-finals set


Saracens wrap up final spot, as quarter finals now set

Ulster secured the number one seed with a highly impressive 22-19 victory against Leicester at Welford Road, and on paper have given themselves the best chance of qualifying for the semi-finals.
Scrum half Ruan Pienaar was in exceptional form for the visitors, and his technical skill and composure, along with Nick Williams’ brute force, were just enough to ensure the Irish side emerge unscathed from Pool Five. Ulster’s win sets up a mouth-watering clash with Saracens at Ravenhill in the quarter-finals, after the English side were utterly ruthless in their 64-6 dismantling of Connacht at Allianz Park. The Londoners ran in 11 tries, including a hat-trick for David Strettle, but the Vunipola brothers were the real stars of the show, as they powered their way through the Connacht defence time after time, and were unlucky not to have picked up a try or two for their endeavours.

Glasgow put up a stubborn performance at Scotstoun against Toulon, but were unable to contend with the power of the French heavyweights, and ultimately succumbed to a 15-8 loss. Steffon Armitage led Toulon’s pack phenomenally, and the French side were able to profit from their superiority at the set piece, as Jonny Wilkinson kicked all 15 of their points. The win secured them a home quarter-final against former champions Leinster, who cruised to a 36-3 win against the Ospreys. The Irish province dominated all facets of the game against the Ospreys, but the performance from their pack was particularly impressive, and it’s an area of their game that they will need to turn up again in April, if they are to have any hope of leaving the Stade Mayol victorious.

A bonus point win for Munster at home to Edinburgh concluded their fairly simple path through the group stages, and also ensured them a very valuable home quarter-final. Paul O’Connell once again rolled back the years with a heroic display in front of the Thomond Park faithful, whilst Connor Murray, Simon Zebo, and Peter O’Mahony all also impressed, and were able to grab a try apiece. They will now host Toulouse in the next round, in an intriguing tie between the two teams with arguably the most thoroughbred European pedigree going. The French side’s place in the quarter-finals was confirmed as they beat Zebre, 16-6, in an unspectacular encounter in Italy.

Clermont wrapped up the weekend’s action with a 28-3 victory over the rapidly imploding Racing Metro, doing just enough to earn a winning bonus point, and book themselves a home quarter-final in April. Atrocious conditions and Clermont’s superiority up front played a significant part in the game, but Racing’s indiscipline contributed to the Parisian’s downfall as much as anything else, and Clermont can now look forward to welcoming Leicester to the fortress that is the Stade Marcel Michelin in the next round. The French side are now unbeaten in 71 matches at home, setting Leicester an unenviable task, but with the Tigers’ battered and depleted squad slowly starting to get healthy again, they are a side to write off at your own peril.

Northampton, Harlequins and Gloucester drop to Amlin Challenge Cup

Bath wrapped up their Amlin pool with a sixth win, beating Bordeaux 54-13, and will now host fellow pool-toppers Brive in the quarter-finals, whilst London Wasps also continued their 100% record in the group stage, defeating Viadana 64-17, and booking a home quarter-final with Gloucester. Sale and Stade Francais also wrapped up their pools with wins, beating Biarritz (9-7) and Lusitanos (48-15) respectively, and Sale will now host Northampton, whilst Harlequins will make the trip to Paris to take on Stade Francais. It’s been a fairly disappointing Heineken Cup campaign so far for the English sides, with just two progressing to the quarter-finals, but with six of the eight remaining sides in the Amlin all representing the Aviva, the odds look good for at least one English club bringing home a European trophy this season.

Try of the Week goes to Alex Goode, for his fantastic solo effort against Connacht. Not the fastest man, Goode scythed through the Connacht defence with his superb footwork, before spotting a mismatch, bursting around a prop in the defensive line, and cruising in for the try.

Ian Evans and Nathan White are the Villains of the Week, after both players stamped repeatedly on the head area of players on the floor. Evans was rightly red carded for his offence, but White will have considered himself extremely lucky to see just yellow, and seemed to be saved by a hesitant TMO.

Ruan Pienaar, unsurprisingly, is the Hero of the Week. Welford Road is a real fortress in European rugby, but the South African’s virtuoso performance helped lead Ulster to a hugely impressive 22-19 victory against Leicester, ending the English club’s 25-match home winning streak in the Heineken Cup. Pienaar accounted for all 22 of his side’s points, and barely put a foot wrong all game.

by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images