Ben Coles picks out the best bits from Round Three of the Heineken Cup, in which all of the French sides won apart from Biarritz who were surprised by Aironi.
Perpignan demolish the Leicester pack for an important home win
As brilliantly predicted by yours truly, Perpignan defeated Leicester by 5 points and guaranteed that the English champions progression to the knockout stages won’t be as easy as they may have hoped. Rarely do you see the Leicester forwards humiliated as they were on Saturday afternoon. With the vocal home crowd baying for blood, Perpignan produced an outstanding amount of pressure when in the Leicester 22, bullying and draining the opposition before Adrien Planté crossed for a sweet score out on the right touchline. It is often easy in the chaos of the scrum to lose composure, but Perpignan’s power was measured as well as brutal. It was a try founded on brilliant execution. Their other score, from new France cap Jérôme Porical, was a scorcher. The full back hit the after-burners before leaving Geordan Murphy dumbstruck as he turned him inside out.
But Leicester’s resilience shone through yet again, Murphy responding with a score in the far corner, whilst Toby Flood was also excellent with the boot. Even when they are picked apart up front there is still enough firepower in the ranks for them to keep in the game, and with such a dominant scrum perhaps Perpignan should have won by more. Come next week when home advantage swings towards Leicester at Welford Road, they may not be able to create such a powerful platform. Saturday’s 24-19 win though has certainly made this pool a lot more interesting.
Aironi produce the greatest of shocks against Biarritz
With their first Heineken Cup win, Aironi produced a massive shock in Pool Four, beating Biarritz by a single point as they won 28-27 at home. After some desperate defence in the first half, tries from Kiwi pivot James Marshall and both wingers, plus a brilliant match-winning drop goal from Julien Laharrague saw the Italians home, leaving Biarritz absolutely stunned. Even with the star names of Imanol Harinodoquy and Dimitri Yachvili, and having scored four tries, Biarritz still ended up on the losing side. Last season’s finalists will have been left scratching their heads as to how this one got away after they went ahead with only seven minutes to go, but Aironi showed great courage in the way they constantly came back. It marked an important first win in the new side’s history, and is a boost not only for Italian rugby, but the Heineken Cup as a whole. The jubilant scenes at full-time were incredible to watch.
Sarries down and out as Venter gives some insightful thoughts
The boots of Jonathan Wisniewski and Frans Steyn saw Racing Metro 92 effectively qualify for the knockout stages, and end those of the Men In Black in an entertaining match at Vicarage Road. Boosted by the return of Juan Martin Hernandez, the Parisians consistently kept the scoreboard ticking over, and were gifted a try in the first half when Brad Barritt momentarily lost his wits, flicking the ball behind him and leaving Hernandez with the easiest of chances to score. There were some scores of a slightly higher quality, such as Noah Cato’s brilliant side-stepping and a flash of brilliance from Sereli Bobo. Barritt did partially redeem himself with a try in the second half creating a nervous finish, but Racing held on.
The drama wasn’t all over though, as Brendan Venter, the Saracens Director of Rugby, gave an incredibly bizarre post-match press conference. It almost has to be seen to be fully appreciated (we’ll publish it later this morning), but Venter’s sarcastic responses were ridiculous. What he actually set out to achieve by giving such a pointless interview is unknown, but it marked another episode in what has been a colourful relationship between Venter and the ERC.
Group of death still anyone’s to win
Pool Three remains as impossible to predict as ever, although London Irish appear now to have little chance of progressing. At Thomond Park, Munster edged out the Ospreys in a very entertaining encounter. Tommy Bowe scored the pick of the tries with a well taken interception and 80m sprint to the line, and they managed to come away with the all important bonus point, though perhaps they could have even stolen a result. After losing in round one, the Munster machine is definitely back up and running. A win away in Swansea next weekend and Munster can almost guarantee their progression once again to the quarter finals.
As for the other two sides, Toulon grabbed what could prove to be a very important away victory against a dreadful London Irish side at the Madejski stadium. Strong performances from Joe Van Niekerk and Jonny Wilkinson led the way for the French visitors, and they scored a wonderful try in the first half through Rudi Wulf. Irish however, a try from Delon Armitage aside, were woeful. Putting in a performance that my brother compared in terms of pleasure to “sticking needles in his eyes”, their tight five really struggled, as did Ryan Lamb at fly-half. Irish now must win and with a bonus point next week in France if they are to stand a chance of going through to the quarter-finals, but that now appears unlikely.
Moving on to the awards, this week’s Hero is the French Aironi full-back Julien Laharrague. The former French international has an impressive list of former clubs, including the likes of Perpignan and Sale, but the impact he has made at Aironi has been massive. His drop-goal made Saturday a day all those in Italian rugby won’t forget for a long time.
This week’s villain is the returning Lions captain Paul O’Connell. Ten minutes into his comeback appearance, O’Connell was sent off for smashing Ospreys number eight Jonathan Thomas to the ground. At first there appeared little to deserve such a drastic action, but the replay showed O’Connell’s guilt as he connected aggressively with the face of Thomas, knocking the Wales international to the floor with what was a mixture of a flailing arm and a punch. So soon into his comeback, O’Connell will pray that he does not receive too great a punishment, as will the whole of Limerick.
Try of the weekend goes to a rare moment of brilliance from London Irish, through their full back Delon Armitage. Starting with an interception from Sailosi Tagicakibau well inside their own 22, Irish moved the ball wide to Jonathan Joseph, who tackled on the half way line popped the ball up to the supporting Armitage. The England full back chipped on past the covering defence, before showing some serious pace to out-strip the defence and touch down, completing an impressive burst up the field. This was Irish at their best, something that has been all too rare in recent weeks.
by Ben Coles