With the pool stages over for another year, the final weekend of Heineken Cup games produced some surprising twists and turns. Here are the best bits:
Wasps give Toulouse a late shock
Starting with the last game of the weekend at Adams Park, a very fiery encounter between the former two title rivals saw two yellow cards and one red appear from Alain Rolland’s pocket. Wasps may have no chance of progressing into the knockout stages after losing away at Glasgow the week before, but they were always battling in this game, relishing the physical challenge on offer from the Toulousain pack.
Simon Shaw’s man of the match award was deserved given his high tackle count, and along with fellow seasoned Heineken Cup veterans like Joe Worsley and Serge Betsen, Wasps really rolled back the years. Andy Powell ran with great control and purpose all afternoon, but the real impact that spurred Wasps on came from the replacement Richard Haughton. His arrival on the pitch midway through the first half for the injured Mark Van Gisbergen gave Wasps an attacking edge from the back that they had been missing, and he continued to punish the poor kicking out of hand from David Skrela. His try gave Wasps not only the lead, but belief that they could pick up a result.
The sending off will be discussed later on, but if anything going down to 14 men made Toulouse play better. They gradually clawed their way back to make the game 16 all, before David Lemi struck late on for the winning score. It means that Toulouse must travel to old rivals Biarritz for their quarter final, in a repeat of the 2010 final. What a match that is going to be.
USAP looking strong as the French sides suffer a mixed weekend
While Toulouse could not guarantee themselves a home quarter-final, Perpignan and Biarritz both managed to secure home advantage for the next stage of the competition with wins over the Scarlets and Bath respectively.
Starting with USAP, as many expected they simply had too much power upfront for the Scarlets to handle. Their two flankers, Damien Chouly and Bertrand Guiry, were excellent. The pack’s dominance meant that Florian Cazenave at scrum-half was never struggling for quick clean ball, and was the reason behind his exceptional performance at scrum-half. It was he who grabbed the all important fourth try which meant Perpignan finished top of Pool Five, racing in from 40 metres out. Les Catalans are also blessed by the fact that they have two top class international centres in David Marty and Maxime Mermoz, and both repeatedly managed to gain easy ground. The reason they are so good is down to the fact that they both have the hands and vision of a fly-half, but the composure and confidence to be able carry out the big plays when under pressure in the centres. The Scarlets were well beaten in this one, and a quick word must be mentioned for the prop Simon Gardner, who went off with a horrible knee injury, for a speedy recovery.
Biarritz’s progression to the next stage came after they beat Bath 26-19 at the Parc de Sports d’Aguilera. A brace from Iain Balshaw against his former club saw the Basque side home, but in this case the scoreline really doesn’t tell the story of the game. Biarritz dominated this match right from the start, and while Bath’s late fightback was certainly admirable, in reality the home side should have never let it happen.
The ambition of Biarritz was clear from the off as they always looked to go for the big score rather than three points when they were on offer. Sure there was an element of luck in Dimitri Yachvili’s chargedown, but they earned their victory through some great powerful running. Last year Biarritz were so unlucky to lose the final, but that experience whilst it will have bitterly hurt will have also galvanised the Basque squad. Perhaps this is their year.
From two victories to a surprise defeat for Pool Three winners Toulon as they lost to the Ospreys in Swansea. Given how they raced into the lead, a Toulon victory seemed pretty much done and dusted. But with the arrival of the cavalry in Mike Phillips and the irreplaceable Shane Williams, the Ospreys came back strongly scoring two tries. Part of the reason for their resurgence can be placed on moving James Hook from 12 to 10 in place of Dan Biggar, but it was Williams magic feet that created the crucial score for Nikki Walker. His return couldn’t be better timed for both the Ospreys and Wales.
Northampton and Leinster end the pool stages unbeaten
Only two teams ended the pool stages unbeaten as Northampton and Leinster qualified as top seeds for the knockout stages, thanks to wins against Castres and Racing Metro respectively. For both teams to go away to France and put in such assured performances reflects their standing as the top two quarter-finalists, and both are now deservedly well backed to win the tournament.
Northampton in particular did well to create such a convincing win, 23-12, as they continue without their star players Courtney Lawes and Chris Ashton. Ashton’s replacement, Joe Ansbro, was in fine form for Saints as he scored one and contributed heavily to the other two tries from Ben Foden and Phil Dowson. Whilst their domestic campaign may have stuttered slightly over the last month, they continue to dominate in Europe.
As for Leinster, their bonus point win against Racing was a big statement to the other quarter finalists of how tough they will be to defeat on the way to the final. They have scored an impressive 21 tries in all of the six pool games and should be a strong bet for the title based on how they have fared so far. Playing Leicester at home already gives them a big psychological advantage, but it’s been the manner in which they’ve played that will make them feel very confident about facing the English champions. Sean O’Brien has really left his mark on the tournament, whilst Jonny Sexton continues to get better and better, he scored 21 points including two tries against Racing. For me, they are definitely the favourites.
Try of the weekend goes to Florian Cazenave of Perpignan for his bonus point score against the Scarlets. Whilst Cazenave had the gas to make the finish, it was Maxime Mermoz’s brilliant break that made the try so good. His swerve and step were too much for the Welsh defence, before he fed Cazenave who did the rest. A classy try from this year’s dark horses.
The hero for this week has to be David Lemi, after his late winner against Toulouse. Lemi pounced like a striker in extra time to seal a win for Wasps, as they avoided what would have been only their second ever loss at home in Heineken Cup history. It was opportunistic, and his body was on the line with the advertising board looming, but he coolly finished to grab the win.
The villain comes from the same game in Florian Fritz, not so much for his red card offence but more his reaction to the crowd. The one fingered salute I’m sure will be something he’ll regret having done, but it was still rather disrespectful and will without doubt be punished by the ERC. The sending off itself wasn’t that convincing in my opinion, we have seen worse punished with less, but it was still a dangerous tackle and Alain Rolland’s mind was made up.
That’s all for this week, thanks very much for reading.
By Ben Coles