Quarter finalists all but finalised in hectic weekend
Leinster came close to securing their position at top of Pool 1, after they left Castres with a 29-22 victory, but a 29-17 win for Northampton against the Ospreys kept alive the Premiership side’s slim hopes of usurping Leinster at the top of the group. The Irish province slipped to an early 14-point deficit against Castres, but a resurgent performance, led by fly half Jimmy Gopperth, cemented a memorable comeback in the south of France. Northampton looked good at the Liberty Stadium, but their failure to pick up a try bonus point will have frustrated Jim Mallinder’s men, and dents their already small chance of qualification.
Pool 2 was wrapped up by Toulon, thanks to their 43-20 victory against Cardiff, although the match will be bitterly remembered by Blues’ fans, who witnessed referee Greg Garner award four yellow cards to their side. Three penalty tries, and 23 points from the boot of Jonny Wilkinson, were enough for Toulon, who were just too strong at the set piece and maul for the Welsh side. Glasgow recorded an impressive 15-10 victory over Exeter at Sandy Park, but inconsistent form earlier in the tournament meant that it was too little too late, and the Scottish side have just pride to play for in their remaining fixture.
A 21-11 loss to Toulouse will have been disheartening for Saracens, but they know they can still qualify as a best runner up, providing they do an efficient job against Connacht next week at Allianz Park. Meanwhile, the win secures a place in the quarter finals for Toulouse, who were just too powerful for Saracens on this occasion. Connacht kept themselves in the running with a 20-3 victory over Zebre, but now face the unenviable task of having to secure a win in London next week, against a Saracens side which will have to eradicate any traces of complacency if they are to avoid a banana skin.
Clermont snatched qualification from the jaws of defeat at The Stoop, as they came from behind to beat Harlequins, 16-13, and ensure qualification from Pool 4. The back row trio of Nick Easter, Chris Robshaw, and Luke Wallace were manful for Quins, but the incision of Napolioni Nalaga and Sitiveni Sivivatu, who both scored tries for the visitors, ultimately proved to be too much for the English side. Hopes of qualification were gone for the Scarlets, but that didn’t stop them from pulling off a result to remember, as they big spenders Racing Metro, 19-13 in Paris, and a superb solo try from winger Kristian Phillips was certainly key in their victory.
Although Ulster and Leicester both secured qualification from Pool 5 with wins over Montpellier (27-16) and Treviso (34-19) respectively, all eyes will still be on their encounter at Welford Road next week, as the winner will be rewarded with a home quarter final. Ulster were made to work hard by a largely second choice Montpellier side at Ravenhill, whilst the Tigers had to come from behind to record a victory against Treviso, in a match many expected them to win far more comfortably. The return of Anthony Allen from injury proved to quite the fillip for Leicester, and the centre could play a big part in deciding the ultimate winner of the pool.
Struggling Premiership side Gloucester turned in a resolute performance at Kingsholm against Munster, but the Irish side proved too powerful for Gloucester, triumphing 20-7. Tries for Keith Earls and Peter O’Mahony helped secure victory for Munster, and the win all but wraps up Pool 6, as no one can now catch Munster at the top of the table. Edinburgh put in a morale-lifting performance against Perpignan, beating the French side 27-16, but with qualification no longer achievable for them, they will be hoping they can kick on and resurrect their ailing RaboDirect PRO 12 campaign.
Bath and Wasps qualify with ease
Wins for Bath and London Wasps kept up their 100% records thus far in the tournament, and also ensured they will finish top of their pools, even with a game left to play. Both teams were impressive, picking up wins on the road, with Bath beating Newport 30-13, and Wasps recording a 26-13 victory against Bayonne. Sale also topped their pool after a 21-3 victory against Worcester, whilst a win for London Irish (79-3 vs Lusitanos) and a loss for Newcastle (7-9 to Brive), kept both sides in second place in their respective pools. Sale, London Irish, and Newcastle can all still finish top of their pools and qualify, but their chances hinge on the results of next week’s games.
Try of the Week goes to Matt Hopper, after some fantastic work in the build-up from his teammates. Chris Robshaw got the move started with an inch-perfect chip ahead, which was collected by Danny Care near the touchline, who acrobatically offloaded inside to Hopper, and the centre had an easy run in to follow.
Collective Villains of the Week are Racing Metro. Credit must go to the Scarlets for their impressive win in Paris, but Racing seem to be imploding, and excuses that their superstar additions need further time to gel are beginning to wear thin. The home side actually put in a decent performance against the Scarlets (when compared to some of their recent outings), but given the investments made to improve the squad, these kind of results are not acceptable on a regular basis. Referee Greg Garner is worthy of a honourable mention, but of his four yellow cards awarded to Cardiff, only one was definitely the wrong decision in my eyes, and though the other three were questionable, they were also understandable.
Leinster fly half Jimmy Gopperth is the Hero of the Week, as the Kiwi scored 21 points, including two tries, as he led his side back from an early 14-point deficit in Castres. With Northampton beating the Ospreys in the other game in Pool 1, it was vital Leinster returned from France with a victory, and no player was more key to that happening than Gopperth.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images