French clubs flourish in the Heineken
Few expected Munster to pull off the unexpected when they headed to France to take on Clermont Auvergne, and despite a slow start, they put up an admirable fight in what eventually proved to be a losing battle. Naipolioni Nalaga scored the first try of the game, ignoring a three man overlap for his team, and instead stepped inside, beating his man and racing over underneath the posts. Munster responded with a try of their own later in the game, Denis Hurley judging a Ronan O’Gara kick to perfection, taking the ball in his stride as crossed the try line, leaving Munster just six points behind Clermont, with plenty of time on the clock. There was a sense that the miraculous might just happen for the visiting Munster fans at the Stade de la Mosson, but for all Munster’s pressure late in the game, they lacked the composure to undo the Clermont defence, ultimately losing 16-10.
Toulon then booked themselves the other place in the final a day later, when they saw off the challenge of Saracens at Twickenham, registering a 24-12 victory. The Toulon pack put in a gargantuan effort, and bossed the breakdown for the majority of the game, but the headlines will all be stolen by a certain number 10. The ageless Jonny Wilkinson turned in an immaculate performance, kicking all seven of his penalties, and adding an almost impossible drop goal just for good measure. His 24-point haul was watched intently by Warren Gatland and the rest of the Lions’ coaching staff, ahead of the touring squad announcement on Tuesday.
An all-French final now awaits in Dublin on the 18th May, and we will definitely see a first-time champion, as neither Clermont nor Toulon have ever won the Heineken Cup before, and veterans such as Nathan Hines, Julien Bonnaire, Bakkies Botha and Wilkinson seek to add an elusive Heineken Cup winners medal to their impressive careers.
Leinster remain last hope of preventing French sweep
Whilst most eyes were on the Heineken Cup this weekend, Leinster arguably put in the performance of the weekend, knocking Biarritz out of the Amlin Challenge Cup with a commanding display. Tries for Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip (2), Isa Nacewa and Jonny Sexton helped Leinster to a 44-16 victory, with the Irish side playing arguably their best rugby of the season. Leinster’s potential Lions all put in laudable performances as they accomplished what many before them have failed to do; nullifying the threat of Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordoquy.
The goal kicking heroics of Jerome Porical were enough to ensure Stade Francais will also be competing in the final, as the Frenchman kicked 20 of his side’s points in their 25-22 victory over Perpignan, but also made two of the more impressive kicks you will ever see, late in the game. With six minutes left to play, Stade were trailing by three, before Porical knocked over a kick from five yards inside his own half, levelling the scores. Porical then completed his magic act, as he lined up a kick from the halfway line, close to the touchline, and sent it successfully between the uprights, albeit with the help of a bounce off of the post and then crossbar.
Given the added pressure of the Heineken Cup, the Hero of the Week has to be Jonny Wilkinson. He bagged all the points for his side, didn’t miss a kick, and defended with the power of a man twice his size. A flawless performance.
It wasn’t a weekend that will be remembered for its’ tries (outside of Dublin) so instead of Try of the Week, the Kick of the Week goes to Jerome Porical for his winning effort against Perpignan. Wilkinson’s under-pressure drop goal against Saracens runs him close, but the game was effectively already won prior to the kick.
No one stands out for Villain of the Week, but take your pick from Will Fraser’s injury potentially costing Saracens, a lack of tries in the business end of the Heineken Cup, and the French rugby calendar, which could potentially damage Wilkinson’s chances of one last Lions tour.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)