Best of the Weekend: Heineken Cup Quarter Finals take shape

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

22 thoughts on “Best of the Weekend: Heineken Cup Quarter Finals take shape

  1. Watched the Gloucester-Munster game, really enjoyed it and feel that the margin of victory is rather unkind on Gloucester. Hopefully though, the performance will help re-start their season.

    Fantastic finish by Sharples – top wing play.

      1. That’s Munster all the way though – give them 3 chances and a tight match and they’ll score from two of them. It’s why they’re always challenging for the titles.

  2. “although the match will be bitterly remembered by Blues’ fans, who witnessed referee Greg Garner award four yellow cards to their side.” – yep, I am going to have to discuss it.

    For the first yellow card, Toulon about 15 yds out, he bins Czekaj for, and I quote “ripping the ball in the tackle”. That is what the ref said on his mic. So I can only imagine he thought it was AFTER the tackle, cynically stopped a try (despite it not being certain) and actually meant “ripping the ball AFTER the tackle”, so this is just incompetent refereeing – either the decision (I think) or his comms.

    Bourrost goes off for being unable to scrummage as well as Toulon. I’m not sure about this one – I’ve seen various people (including Nigel Flatman, who mentioned similar about another game) that we’re now seeing people being binned for not being as good as their oppo’s in the scrum. Some refs say this is the only way to stop scrums being a penalty fest – but it won’t really as any replacements are likely to be worse. Would you bin an outside half if he repeatedly failed to make a 10 yard kickoff? Anyway, that card I can sort of handle – it was brought about through pressure – through rugby being played so if it’s consistent then it is fair. The following card for bringing down the maul is legal – but was a direct consequence of us being down to 14 men. So we have two cards out of the four that a lot (most?) of refs would have given, even with my reservations about binning props for not being good enough.

    Towards the end we’re camped on the Toulon tryline, they foul cynically twice to stop us scoring. He doesn’t utter a word. This is the problem – zero consistency. Further on they’re pressing to score, Copeland is stupid/cynical to stop a try, he bins him instantly. So we have 2 clear examples where our players were binned for things their players were not. It turns out he also has form for this –

    The man is a shameful excuse for a referee.

    Would we have beaten Toulon in Toulon? Probably not, and I can hear many people laughing already – but these would be the same people who thought we were going to get tonked by Toulon at home. The same who never thought we’d have gone in the lead in Toulon and the same who never thought we’d manage to keep in the game until down to 13 men. In two matches Toulon scored zero tries against us when we had 15 men, we scored 3 against their 15. So I would have loved to have seen what would have happened if he hadn’t binned Czekaj and/or binned their players for the same offences.

    I know that sin bins are partly a result of pressure, so I’m not saying that it was the thing that decided the match, but it sure did ruin it as a spectacle and leave an incredibly sour taste in the mouth of every Blues fan.

    1. With regards cards at scrum time; I guess the theory is that if a prop is not as good as their opponent then they should legally give ground and retreat rather than illegally collapse it?

      Of course, no prop is ever going to allow an opposing scrum to march over for a try so he takes his chances and collapses..

      1. In the scrum in question it did go back at a massive rate of knots, I think the only thing that stopped it was them falling over. Now if you think that’s cynical then it’s subjective and a tough call to bin a prop for not being able to run backwards at a rate of knots just cos he is getting mullered.

  3. “and the Scottish side have just pride to play for in their remaining fixture” – if they beat Toulon and we lose to Exeter then they’re pretty sure of an Amlin cup place I believe. Similar for Blues – if we beat Exeter then we’re into the Amlin. Right now, with the squad and injuries we’ve got, I’ll take that as a consolation because beating Exeter would be a scalp. Also immensely proud of the team after the horror first half in Exeter to even be in this situation.

  4. Couple of things, firstly, as a Wasps fan I’m starting to become very optimistic. Great result to win away at Bayonne, this side is becoming very promising and will only get better.

    The other thing is Danny Care. He is so frustrating. His offload was sublime, and there is not many 9s in world rugby who could pull it off. The issue is, before it even hit half time he had kicked three absolutely awful box kicks, two of them almost resulting in tries. I really can not get my head around it. Danny, go and practice your bloody box kicks. He sliced the first one which basically went straight up in the air, then the second went so low the chasers had no chance. It is just basics that he gets so wrong. For this reason, I wouldn’t want him in the 23 in the 6Ns. He gave Italy their try in last years 6Ns for a terrible box kick as well, this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned it on here.

  5. Personally of the opinion that the box kick is a tactic which has had its time. You very rarely see it being used effectively and against the top counter-attacking teams, its just asking for trouble

    1. Interested to hear more about this. What makes you say that? It’s a kick that counters exactly what you are saying. When used properly is should give the attacking team a good chance of getting to the ball, and it also cuts out 10 meters of space that a 10 would have to kick, meaning the distance of the kick isn’t far off what most 10s can offer. There is also, again if performed properly, less chance of is being charged down and reduces margin for error in that nobody has to whip out an excellent pass.

      Why would you spin the ball back to the 10 to kick if a 9 can box properly? Unless you have someone with a huge boot and your aim is just touch. Even then, it allows teams to throw in quickly unless you are safe with the kick, at which point, again the 9 is a safer option.

      1. I understand the theory behind it and if it is executed well then it can work nicely. However, you rarely see it executed well – far too often the kick is of poor quality, or the chase is half-hearted. It also lends itself to being charged down – witness Genia in this year’s autumn internationals

        And of course, if it isn’t done properly, then the opposition ends up with the ball in a dangerous area of the pitch

        I’ve no problem with the 9 using it as a clearing kick to touch where there isn’t the room or time to get the ball to the 10 (so long as they make touch) but aimless punting of the ball into the air makes little sense to me.

        1. Would you say that it is better to put an up and under from the 10 to chase? It is more often that not an issue with the chase. If you look at the way Du Preez in particular uses it then you’ll see how useful it can be.

          I actually think you are less likely to be charged down, as long as you have guards in properly. The Genia example is an exception and not the trend I’d argue.

          Are you saying you’d prefer all kicks to hit touch?

          1. I prefer it from the ten. I think an up an under from the nine results in a big jam of forwards to get through. With it usually being executed from the breakdown.

  6. With regards to the scrum; why on earth don’t refs tell the scrum half to play the ball if it’s won and at the eights feet? The scrum is used as a competitive way to restart play. So if a team has own, the ball is playable at the eights feet then why not play? It sucks the life out of a game watching one dominant scrum continue the drive until someone pops up or collapses in order to win a kickable penalty. This is a big part of the scrummaging problem in my opinion. If there was less of a reward from twisting and using the so called, “dark-arts,” I think the scrum would become more competitive, we would see less collapses, someone might actually score a try from the scrum as an attacking platform and less time would be eaten away by such an integral feature of the game. Especially evident in the Munster v Gloucester game, we saw Murray leave the ball at the eights feet and look to the ref for a penalty. Most sadly is that this shows a shift in attitude towards wanting to score points through kicks. Both times that Murray waited for the ref to award Munster then pen, he was watching the entire Gloucester eight tied into the scrum marching backwards, the defensive backline was having to retreat, and keatley and co were set up perfectly to attack the Gloucester line. If a team has a scrum capable of causing chaos, that chaos should be used to score five points, not the same monotonous ritual of waiting for the ref to reward the dominant pack.
    It’s not a perfect solution that everyone will agree with im sure, however, it would go some way to restoring the tradition and competitiveness of such an important feature of the game. Especially when this feature was designed to give one team an attacking advantage to score tries. I’m sure that in no way, shape or form that original legislators of the games rules would have discussed, “an incredibly difficult process to ref, whereby the dominant team can accumulate points through the repeated penalisation of the defending team.”

    1. I sort of see where you are coming from but would this not completely devalue the scrum? If it was treated the way you suggest, just get the ball in and out asap, then it would become devalued and turn into a rugby league type scrum which we don’t want.

      1. James, it’s an interesting problem. What about borrowing an idea from junior rugby and limiting the distance a scrum can be pushed before ball must be used? Five metres would still enable pushover tries, enable dominant team to use as weapon etc. but would have some compromise to let the game flow?

  7. Just like to mention – Cian Healy was pretty impressive for someone 4 weeks into his “8 week” recovery period from ankle surgery.


  8. I don’t mean an emphasis on in and out. I’m just calling for it to be actually used as an attacking platform. If the balls there to play at the eights feet than play. Obviously there still needs to be competition until the ball is at the eights feet, but once there I think it should be played. Irrelevant of what then happens at the front of the scrum.

    1. James, I do partly agree with you. Partly insofar as I like to see the refs make the team that has won the ball, use it.

      Where I disagree with you is that I do think, that often the refs are doing this. I think we see a lot of scrums now where the team with a dominant scrum wins the ball, gets it back to the No8, and then – apparently – sees if it can win a penalty as a bonus. In these instances the ref does make them play it, whereas last year we may have been seeing penalties.

  9. I can’t help but marvel at how good healey is with the ball in hand for a prop. He was always good, but even now so he’s sorted his scrummaging out and is a real menacing ball carrier. Joe marler reminds me of a young cian healey in ways. Hot headed, physical, great around the park but just not quite there in the scrum.

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