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