At the start of every campaign, the penultimate round of European group fixtures is always earmarked as a make or break. As it happened, some fascinating matches did not disappoint. Here is your round-up.
Ulster secure last eight berth as Saints see off Castres
Over the course of this remarkable, emotionally-charged year, Ulster have found various ways to win. In soaking conditions at Ravenhill, they wore down Glasgow slowly and with an air of inevitability. The visitors were dogged and industrious in the face of an early score by big Nick Williams – heading into the last quarter, the score was tight at 10-6. Unfortunately, they then got overwhelmed by late tries from Jared Payne and Darren Cave. Just for a change, Ruan Pienaar was magnificent. In terms of twisting the territorial screw, there are few better number nines around.
On the same evening over the Irish Sea, Northampton kept themselves in the hunt for a knockout-stage place, ousting Castres 18-12. Courtney Lawes put in an exceptional, effervescent shift and a grinning Jim Mallinder hailed the talented lock afterwards. It was not all good news for English clubs on Friday night, though. Sale succumbed 27-6 to Montpellier, another comprehensive loss in a tournament that has been an unwelcome distraction for the Salford club.
Saturday saw Leinster stay in the hunt for a third successive Heineken Cup, battering Scarlets 33-14 without having to call upon Brian O’Driscoll until the hour mark. Cian Healy, Shane Jennings, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Ian Madigan crossed for the champions, who remain alive in the competition. In Pool Five’s other contest, Exeter bore the brunt of an in-form Clermont Auvergne, going down 46-3.
Superb Saracens down Racing, Toulon book quarter-final spot
A couple of second-half sin-binnings and some virtuoso running from a precocious backline handed Harlequins a handsome win over Connacht, Ugo Monye bagging the pick of six tries with a scintillating quick-step to the line on his two-hundredth club appearance. Last year’s Aviva Premiership winners will top the group, regardless of Biarritz’s bonus-point defeat of Zebre.
They may have garnered a reputation for grinding, unattractive triumphs in recent times, but in managing to plunder Nantes and overturn Racing Metro 37-28, Saracens caught the eye. It was something of a coup for application over invention that relied heavily on Owen Farrell’s faultless boot, yet they will not care at all. After hauling themselves back into the match from 22-9 down, the Fez-heads have plenty to be proud of. What is more, Munster’s failure to score four tries against Edinburgh means they are in the driving seat ahead of the final round.
Toulon were another outfit to guarantee progression, brushing plucky Cardiff Blues aside in a 45-25 try-fest over The Channel. Mathieu Bastareud, resembling that Rupeni Caucaunibuca at his most rotund, was exceptional in the centre. There were rampaging runs, deft offloads and a try. I dread to think what he tips the scales at, but Bastareud is a fearsome performer.
Tigers revival sets up showdown with Toulouse, Amlin Cup reaches business end
Simply outplayed by their outstanding hosts for large chunks of Sunday’s tie at the Liberty Stadium, Leicester Tigers did fantastically well to forge a five-point lead when Niall Morris scooted over in the right-hand corner with just five minutes left. Richard Cockerill was certainly not counting on the electric Eli Walker setting up Jonathan Spratt to level it, but a 15-15 draw means Leicester are in charge of their destiny. They must beat Toulouse, who trounced Treviso, at Welford Road next week. Mouth-watering.
Morale-boosting wins for Bath, Gloucester, London Irish, London Welsh, Wasps and Worcester lit up the Amlin Challenge Cup’s latest instalment, while a brawny finish from Mike Phillips brought Bayonne past a brave Dragons effort.
Awesome throughout Osprey’s clash with Leicester, Kahn Fotuali’i deserves a mention in the Hero of the Weekend stakes. Ruan Pienaar, another sensational scrum half, was also extremely good. However, nailing 32 points from the tee and directing a wonderful win in France, Owen Farrell gets the nod.
Villain of the Weekend had fewer candidates, but Alain Rolland’s decision to card Chris Ashton for a slap after touch-judge advice was soft. I did too much official-bashing last time, though. For a cynical push on Ugo Monye, Fetu’u Vainikolo is inducted into the hall of shame.
Joe Bearman had a wonderful game on Sunday against Leicester and is rewarded with the Try of the Weekend gong after capping off a sweeping move with a nimble finish for Osprey’s opener.
By Charlie Morgan