What a weekend. Round 6 is notorious for its twists and turns, but there were a handful of upsets and surprise results over the last three days across Europe. Here are the best bits:
Magic from Gloucester and an inspired Connacht means Harlequins crash out
Going back to when we ran through the Heineken Cup permutations before Round 5, the prediction was made that Gloucester would defeat Toulouse at home, paving the way for Harlequins to qualify as group winners. The script stuck as Gloucester ran in some phenomenal tries against a ragged Toulouse team, whose flashes of brilliance were mixed with phases of mediocrity. The omens were there after Timoci Matanavou’s howler within the opening minutes to concede the first try.
The Cherry & Whites back three caused mayhem; James Simpson-Daniel’s powerful drives blending with the blinding pace of Charlie Sharples and Jonny May. Gloucester have been wildly inconsistent in recent weeks, losing to Worcester and Newcastle, but to score a bonus point try against Toulouse shows their true quality. The French champions looked devastated at the final whistle, convinced that Harlequins would have pulled off a victory in the west of Ireland. Thierry Dusautoir admitted that he thought they were out. If their paths ever cross, he owes Niall O’Connor a beer.
The former Ulster fly-half helped both his old club and Toulouse, landing kicks in frankly ridiculous Galways winds. Along with the rest of his squad, he battered Harlequins back time and again in a phenomenal performance. It was Connacht’s first win since September, and means Harlequins must now return to the Amlin Challenge Cup with a chance to defend their title.
Munster massacre in Milton Keynes as all the Irish sides go through
A triple bill of Irish provincial matches on Saturday may not have produced three wins, but did see all three progress to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time ever. Starting in Dublin, Leinster overall had to work hard for their 25-3 win over Montpellier, despite going 17-0 up within 25 minutes. The lack of a try bonus point eventually cost them, as Munster leapt ahead of them to finish as top seeds. Rob Kearney in particular stood out, looking in fine form ahead of the Six Nations.
Onto the bear pit that is the Stade Marcel Michelin, where Ulster’s improbable task of defeating Clermont in France proved a step too far. The game of the weekend, fewer breakdowns have been more brutal, as the two huge packs led by juggernauts Stephen Ferris and Gerhard Vosloo threw every ounce of strength into one another. The boots of two of the world’s best scrum-halves in Morgan Parra and Ruan Pienaar went toe to toe, but in the end it was Ti’i Paulo’s try that separated the two sides.
Finally, a bizarre match in Milton Keynes saw a remarkable 87 points notched up between both Northampton and Munster, with the visitors scoring five tries including a remarkable hat-trick from Simon Zebo. The name is not easy to forget, and if he carries on in that form Zebo could become an international star. Despite being torn apart at the scrum, where Munster conceded two penalty tries, they were fantastic throughout; well marshalled by Conor Murray and Ronan O’Gara coupled with waves of powerful drives from Paul O’Connell and the impressive James Coughlan. The Red Army have received a fair bit of criticism for their performances ahead of Round 6, yet sit top of the seedings.
Edinburgh, Saracens and Cardiff ensure full representation
Edinburgh and Cardiff’s two horse race in Pool 2 went right to the wire, with the bonus point score of Lee Jones making the difference as Edinburgh clinched top spot and the all important home quarter-final against Toulouse. Few teams deserve a last eight spot more than the Scottish side, who have produced exceptional performances against Racing Métro and London Irish, both home and away. With a back row in form and two wingers in Tim Visser and Jones causing plenty of damage, don’t write them off against Toulouse.
The Blues also secured their quarter-final spot on the final day in a thrilling match with Racing in Cardiff. The French side have been incredibly frustrating this year, producing sensational performances away from home but struggling on their own turf. As for the Blues, Alex Cuthbert grabbed an excellent brace to boost his chances for Six Nations selection, but failing to score a fourth try means that they have to travel to champions Leinster.
Finally, Saracens laboured to victory against a spirited Treviso side in Italy, doing enough to make sure they will be at home, or Wembley, for the quarter-finals when they will face Clermont. David Strettle looked in excellent form, whilst Kelly Brown’s injury will have caused some concern for Scotland coach Andy Robinson.
Try of the Weekend goes to Charlie Sharples of Gloucester. A fine grubber kick down the line from Mike Tindall was latched on to by the whippet Jonny May, who then fed Sharples on his inside for the score.
This weekend’s Hero is Stephen Jones of the Scarlets, for his late penalty kick away against Castres that won the game, only their second defeat at the Stade Pierre Antoine all season.
The Villian is Timoci Matanavou of Toulouse, whose indecision cost his side dearly in the opening minutes at Kingsholm, failing to kick the ball clear and conceding a try.
by Ben Coles
QUARTER-FINALS – 6 / 7 / 8 APRIL, 2012
(1) Munster Rugby v Ulster Rugby (8)
(2) Leinster Rugby v Cardiff Blues (7)
(3) Edinburgh Rugby v Toulouse (6)
(4) Saracens v ASM Clermont Auvergne (5)