Best of the Weekend: Leicester thrive in thrilling climax to Heineken Cup group stage

Leicester Toulouse

There was a reason we were looking forward to this so much. Some sensationally tense clashes in the final group round of European action justified every morsel of hype. Here is what went on.

Harlequins hold off Biarritz, Northampton are left behind and Toulon trip up

Having already guaranteed a place at the summit of their pool, Harlequins’ trip to a waterlogged Parc des Sports Aguilera on Friday evening amounted to something of an acid test. Though Biarritz have endured an inconsistent competition, the Aviva Premiership champions would need to dig extremely deep against a brawny pack inspired by that notorious anti-Anglophile Imanol Harinodoquy.

With that in mind, a 16-9 win on the back of Tom Guest’s try – the hosts’ first defeat in four years at the venue –was an exceptional result. Nick Evans scooped man-of-the match plaudits, but sturdy foundations were laid by Joe Marler, George Robson and Saracens-bound James Johnston on the front line. Connacht completed another admirable foray into the Heineken Cup on the same night, negotiating a determined Zebre outfit to triumph 25-20 in Galway.

Early on Saturday afternoon, it was Ulster’s turn to steel themselves in the face of a ferocious French pack, Castres hurtling out of the blocks led by the effervescent Pedrie Wannenburg. Despite a fantastic early try for Remy Lamerat though, the visitors had much the better of the match, coming away 8-9 victors – meanwhile Northampton crashed out ignominiously thanks to a scintillating seven-pointer from Glasgow’s Peter Horne.

With supporters clearing snow from the Arms Park surface, Cardiff was a portrait of rugby’s community feel prior to the Blues’ clash with Sale. From there, Lloyd Williams repaid the hardy shovellers, putting in a brilliant performance punctuated by a try to vanquish the Salford outfit 26-14. Assured of a place in the last eight, Toulon finished Pool Six with a whimper, beaten 23-3 by Montpellier. Jonny Wilkinson was off-radar behind a set of forwards that, Simon Shaw apart, were bullied. Benoit Paillaugue, Montpellier’s diminutive scrum half, and Mamuka Gorgodze, the decidedly less diminutive Georgian lock, tore their illustrious adversaries apart to clinch a quarter-final berth.

Munster sneak in at expense of Leinster as Tigers oust Toulouse

If Clermont’s 29-0 defeat of Scarlets was somewhat straightforward, the real drama in Pool Five unfolded at Sandy Park, where Leinster embarked on a hunt for tries against Exeter. With Brian O’Driscoll back in the fold and Cian Healy in the mood for devastation, the Dubliners did grab their vital bonus-point. In going down 29-20, the Chiefs gave a brave effort and will have learnt plenty from a maiden expedition among best on the continent.

Although Leinster put some sumptuous attacks together, Munster ensured it was not enough to progress by blitzing through a Racing Metro outfit that was reduced to 14 men in the early stages. Aiming a conspicuous knee at an opponent in plain view of Wayne Barnes, Antoine Battut made it very tough for his teammates, who were dismantled by a Simon Zebo hat-trick and succumbed to an inevitable 29-6 reverse. Storming to the top of that group and claiming a home quarter final against Ulster in the process, Saracens finished their preliminary round with a 40-7 romp against Edinburgh.

And so to what was billed as the grand finale. Not Ospreys’ trip to Treviso, during which the Welshmen were hi-jacked by a last-minute score from replacement Andrea Pratichetti. No, all eyes were instead on Welford Road, where the aggregated winners of six Heineken Cups took to the stage. In what can only be described as a blizzard, the two giants fought extremely hard to break the shackles that the conditions imparted.

Led by their fantastic pair of second-rows Geoff Parling and Louis Deacon, Leicester’s forwards were ferocious and earned enough penalties for Toby Flood to take Tigers beyond the sole try Toulouse managed. That said, the main story was the visitors’ chronic inability to hit the target from the tee – Lionel Beauxis and Luke McAlister missed an incredible five kicks between them. It might have been fate, it might have been the influence of the vociferous home support, but somehow Leicester scraped though. The knockout stage awaits in early April, and the line-up is truly mouth-watering.

Heineken Cup quarter-finals: Clermont v Montpellier, Halrequins v Munster, Saracens v Ulster, Toulon v Leicester Tigers.

Bath brush Bucaresti aside in pursuit of silverware

A nine-try thrashing of Bucaresti gave Bath an easy passage to a home quarter-final against Stade Francais, who themselves beat London Welsh aside 39-17. Gloucester, Perpignan and London Wasps also booked their places in the last eight with Leinster, Toulouse and Biarritz joining them from the Heineken Cup.

Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals: Bath v Stade Francais, Gloucester v Biarritz, Perpignan v Toulouse, London Wasps v Leinster

There was no shortage of Hero of the Weekend candidates over an action-packed weekend. Louis Deacon was as intimidating as a yeti at Welford Road and any of the Harlequins pack deserved a shot. Likewise Simon Zebo, whose dancing feet carried Munster through. For dismantling a team of astronomical names though, Montpellier scrum half Benoit Paillaugue gets the nod.

Wenceslas Lauret might have received Villain of the Weekend had the Biarritz blinside’s punch on Joe Marler landed. Then again, he probably only caught my attention because of his (fantastic) first name. Although Wayne Barnes was, in my view, harsh with how quickly he brandished red at Antoine Battut, the Racing Metro man has to be named and shamed.

Try of the Weekend was one that woke up Ulster abruptly, Remy Lamerat latching onto a lovely blinside move initiated by Rory Kockott and featuring sublime handling by scintillating Scot Max Evans.

By Charlie Morgan

Follow Charlie on Twitter: @CharlieFelix

19 thoughts on “Best of the Weekend: Leicester thrive in thrilling climax to Heineken Cup group stage

  1. “notorious anti-Anglophile Imanol Harinodoquy.” I don’t think he is? He is on record as disliking the English but I don’t recall him expressing any issue with the British i.e. no problem with Welsh/Irish(Northern) and Scottish?

    Can I clutch as some straws and say that in hindsight the Blues performance in the HC doesn’t look so bad given the 2 above us in our group qualified? No, didn’t think so, we were rubbish … but I think we have reason for optimism. A lot of young players used and they were the ones making the differences in the games. Great to beat Sale and great to see Williams with such a triumphant return. The best player on the pitch by miles.

    The Ospreys … this is why it’s so painful to be an Ospreys supporter (or so my O’s supporting mates tell me).

    1. Oh yes, Hero(es) of the weekend – Cardiff Blues supporters club. 7am starts on Fri and then again on Saturday to get the pitch into playable shape.

        1. I don’t see why it should, even if it is.
          It’s as baseless as taking Celtic to mean British (including English).

          1. Cambridge dictionary defines Anglophile as “a person who is not British but is interested in, likes or supports Britain and its people and customs” .

            Other’s like Webster’s just refer to England or English but that is a USA publisher and Americans (amongst others )treat the words English and British as interchangeable.

            Anyway Harinodoquy would be an Anglophobe surely if we accept the word as limited to England not .Anti-Anglophile suggests that he dislikes Anglophiles ie foreign admirers of England etc rather than England itself . Pedantry moment over !

  2. For me villain of the weekend should go to the whole Edinburgh team for failing to earn a single point in their pool, and for being very poor at everything on the pitch. Had the ref cared for line out throws which we’re not straight, the score could have been much higher. And despite the ref’s best efforts to give them chance after chance, they failed themselves at every hurdle. And all the hype about Visser, well, he was probably the laziest player on the pitch. He didn’t go looking for the ball, gave his centres no outside option when they had the ball. Basically he didn’t look like he wanted to be there.

  3. I would be very disappointed if I was Welsh. Not only obviously there are no Welsh teams in the HC quaters, but also, how many of their French based players are going to be exposed to the later stages of the HC. Byrne at Clermont? As he doesn’t even get in the Welsh side. And Jenkins, who can’t get in the Toulon side?

    It is not good news for a Welsh side already on the slide.

    Or am I making too bigger deal out of this? I think that players getting experience at the highest level in Northern Hemisphere club rugby, (eg. HC quaters…) are going to be more likely to carry that into the international stage.

    1. Yeah, I think you are making too much of it. The disappointment is right and felt but its a little early to ring the death knell for welsh rugby as we’ve been in this position a lot and England didn’t seem to suffer too much from it last year.

      1. No I agree, and by no means is it the death of Welsh rugby. But it is surely a cause for concern.

        The HC is the highest form of club rugby these guys will play, so it is certainly going to benefit the guys playing in the later rounds.

        I do not think that it is a co-incidence that post 2011 WC (awful time for English rugby), our teams performed very poorly in the HC. This year with English rugby (seemingly) on the up, three teams have qualified with two being at home.

        Am I reading too much into this? Or is there a genuine correlation between the two?

        1. The knock out rounds, if you get to the final, means 3 extra high level matches, so on average each guy will get less than 2 full matches at that level. It’s not much of a difference to be getting concerned about in regards to the player development.

          It’s a concern for the future of the regions and the domestic game – success will bring in the crowds and the money, nothing else will.

    2. Historically I don’t think many Welsh players have had regular (or in quite a few cases any) HC cup QF or better experience, but the 6N record has been excellent. Conversely Ireland have had the majority of their internationals regularly involved, but not done much internationally.

      I would be more worried about all the established stars leaving the regions. Whilst it gives opportunities for the youngsters the absence of many of the international stars to learn from day in day out can’t be ideal for their development.

      1. You make a good point about the Irish domination in HC but not internationally. And to be fair, that tends to confuse a lot of people.

        I don’t think the Welsh have had a particularly poor record in HC history.

        Maybe it is not as relevant as I suggested.

        Either way; I am very happy to see a lot of the England squad be playing in the later rounds of the HC.

        1. The Welsh do have a very poor record in HC history – no finalists, two semi-finals (if you discount the meaningless first season of Euro comp). This isn’t the first year we have had 0 QF teams either.

          The Irish point is important for gauging both Welsh success and Welsh domestic failure. Irish guys often ask me, if I think Wales players are better (I do, but it’s an opinion), how the Irish regions do better than Wales? Putting aside all of the points about focus for now I think you can list the reasons Irish teams do better than Ireland – Nacewa, Pienarr, Howlett, Nick Williams … I could go on for a while as the list of key players is huge, but the real difference is in the coaching. Irish provinces sign well from the overseas pool but more importantly they put good proven coaches in charge – Chieka, etc. Welsh provinces, no matter which players we sign, always have coaches who have proven nothing in charge – Dai Young, Gareth Baber, Holley, Humphreys, Tandy, Easterby, etc. It’s like an ex-players pension fund. Wales on the other hand are the opposite – we do well when we sign the best coaches in the world : Hansen, Henry, Gatland… This is then why our domestic performance does not send us into hysterics about our chances in international tournaments – because we have better coaches and better focus at international and a proven record of rising above domestic mire.

          All of this said though I *hate* the fact the Blues have had a crap HC. I couldn’t be more down in the dumps about it. But I’m not fearful for the future of Welsh rugby because of it.

          1. Very good point about the coaching. England is a clear example of this. In six months we went from laughing stock to respectable side. Playing pool the same – only difference change in coach.

            I’m not convinced that the HC is any indicator for the 6N. Club/Region resources will generally prevail over time although there are always teams that are underresourced who have one or two good seasons. Means better players, coaches, training facilities, etc.

    3. No we are generally -word begining with sh – in the Heineken Cup doesn’t seem to make much difference in the Six Nations .If it did then it would be 3 Grand Slams to Ireland instead of 1 in the same time period.

      And for summer internationals players can be running on empty/ overplayed by then.Straight from a Heineken final to a Lions tour for instance doesn’t give much time to re-charge the batteries . The dogs dinner that is the NH season has more effect .

  4. No mention of Freddie Michalak and his non-contact sweeper role for the fist Montpelier try?

    I am not sure whether to criticise him or not, as clearly he determined quite early on that any physical intervention on his part was not going to stop the Montpelier centre from touching down – so he chose to start pointing out the defensive mistake whilst the Montpelier player was strolling past him to score. Brilliant!

  5. I’d like to nominate Lionel Beauxis and Luke McAllister for the heroes of the weekend gong, for singlehandedly kicking Leicester to Heineken cup victory.

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