Munster majestic, Toulon terrific
Munster were in majestic form as they dispatched four-time Heineken Cup winners Toulouse, overpowering and outplaying the French side right from the off at Thomond Park, and racking up an impressive 47-23 score line. The Irish province were excellent throughout, scoring six tries, but Toulouse failed to turn up, and only seemingly came alive in two brief spells, both of which resulted in tries, the first through Hosea Gear and the second Joe Tekori. Outside of their two tries, Toulouse were extremely disappointing, and a case can be made that the final score line perhaps even flattered them somewhat, as early Munster indiscipline allowed Toulouse to keep in touch for the first 40, despite certainly not being at the races.
Clermont’s unbeaten streak at home was extended to 75 games as they held on to beat the Leicester Tigers 22-16 at Stade Marcel Michelin, but the English side deserve praise for coming very close to ending Clermont’s historic run. The home side raced into a 16-0 lead and looked ready to cut loose, but the Tigers showed an abundance of resilience and determination to drag themselves back into the game. A Jordan Crane try at the end of the first half, as well as a virtuoso display from fly-half Owen Williams, gave Leicester hope, and although they were within a converted try of recording a monumental victory, they couldn’t quite pierce the impressive Clermont defence in the dying minutes.
Drama and controversy reigned at Ravenhill, but it was Saracens who took the spoils back to London, beating Ulster 17-15 in a tense encounter in Belfast. Ulster were shorn of fullback Jared Payne in the fourth minute, as the New Zealander saw red for dangerous play on Alex Goode. An uncharacteristic lack of accuracy from the boot of Owen Farrell allowed Ulster to keep their noses ahead for much of the match, but ultimately Saracens’ one man advantage told, and tries from Chris Ashton (two) and Mouritz Botha were enough to give Saracens a narrow advantage going into the final minutes. Trailing by just two points, Ulster strung together 35 phases in Saracens’ half, but the Londoners well-drilled defence held firm, and denied the province the most memorable of victories.
The Heineken Cup rugby was wrapped up for the week at Stade Mayol, where a rampant and destructive Toulon side saw off Leinster, 29-14, and booked themselves a semi-final with Munster in Marseille. It was a similar story to the Munster vs Toulouse game from the previous day, with the home side playing powerfully and with real intent, whilst the visiting side simply failed to turn up. The Toulon pack acquitted themselves superbly, with Danie Russouw, Craig Burden and Steffon Armitage particularly impressing, whilst Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell looked dangerous whenever the ball was fired out to the backline. Leinster, meanwhile, looked out of their element, as they missed tackle after tackle, and when they did get their hands on the ball, they were simply unable to implement their usually effective attacking game.
Harlequins cruise whilst Wasps impress
Harlequins had potentially the most difficult task of the six remaining English clubs in the Amlin Challenge Cup, facing a daunting trip to Stade Jean Bouin to take on Stade Francais, but the Londoners were able to cruise to a 29-6 victory, as the Parisians rested some of their key players. Mike Brown and Tim Molenaar both crossed the line for Quins, whilst Nick Evans added 17 points with the boot, with the ever-reliable Morne Steyn only able to offer up two penalties in return for Stade. Quins will now meet the Northampton Saints in the semi-finals, as the Saints booked their place in the next round with a comfortable 28-14 victory over the Sale Sharks, with both teams resting a number of regular starters.
A dynamic performance from the back row trio of Sam Jones, James Haskell and Nathan Hughes helped London Wasps to an impressive 36-24 victory over Gloucester at Adams Park. Credit should be given to both teams for fielding full-strength XVs, but on the day Wasps were the more powerful and clinical of the two sides. Wasps will have home advantage once more in the semi-finals, where they will meet Bath, after the West Country outfit secured their place in the next round by sauntering to a 39-7 victory over an outclassed Brive side.
Chiefs stun Cheetahs with extraordinary comeback
The Chiefs, fresh from a remarkable comeback in Pretoria to earn a draw with the Bulls last week, were at their clinical best, as they managed to turn a 34-10 halftime deficit to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, into an almost unbelievable 43-all draw. A first half brace for Sarel Pretorius and further tries from Ryno Benjamin and Boom Prinsloo gave the Cheetahs a commanding 24 point lead at halftime, with the Chiefs only able to offer up a single try through scrum half Augustine Pulu in response.
For all the Cheetahs’ set piece and territorial dominance in the first half however, it would ultimately not prove enough, as the Chiefs put on one of the best second half performances you’re ever likely to see.
Elsewhere in Super Rugby, Western Force impressed mightily beating the Reds 32-29 in Brisbane, moving themselves into a position to be a genuine contender for the playoffs this season, whilst the Crusaders resurrected their own slim chances, beating the Lions 28-7 in Johannesburg. The Stormers woes continued however, as they lost 22-11 to the Waratahs in Cape Town, even with the free-scoring Israel Folau sidelined through injury, whilst the Highlanders edged out the Rebels in a high octane 33-30 encounter in Dunedin.
It wasn’t a vintage weekend for superb tries in either hemisphere, but Jordan Crane’s score against Clermont did enough to earn Try of the Week. A superb cross-field kick from Owen Williams found Jamie Gibson, who passed to Blaine Scully on the overlap, before the winger drew the last defender and offloaded to Crane.
Jared Payne is this week’s Villain of the Week, although it comes with a caveat. There was clearly no malicious intent from Payne, and though some may argue that a red card was harsh, Payne’s recklessness put Alex Goode in a dangerous situation. It was a mixture of enthusiasm and poor timing from the Ulster fullback, but that being said, Goode was lucky not to have suffered a serious injury as a result. Payne does deserves credit however for being one of the first over to Goode to make sure he was ok following the Saracen’s return to the team bench.
Western Force are the Heroes of the Week, as they recorded their fourth win in a row, a new franchise record, by beating the Reds at Suncorp Stadium. The Perth-based outfit have impressed everyone this season, having gone from perennial cellar dwellers to a potential playoff team in just one short year. Ulster’s fantastic effort with just 14 men also deserves an honourable mention.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images