Eight games, some of the biggest names and extremely high stakes. Knockout rugby was the order of this weekend as the quarter finals of both Amlin Challenge and Heineken Cups were contested ferociously. Here is a round-up of what went on.
Clermont dominate Montpellier as Saracens swerve past Ulster
Heading into the Heineken Cup’s last eight, Clermont were thought to be the competition’s most potent attacking force, their backline saturated with strike runners behind a belligerent pack. True to form, the tournament’s significant favourites comprehensively outgunned Montpellier on Saturday at Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin, scoring 33 unanswered points after finding themselves 9-3 adrift. Five tries from each of their starting three-quarters told the story, with Lee Byrne, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Wesley Fofana, Aurelien Rougerie and Napolioni Nalaga each crossing.
Over The Channel at Twickenham, Saracens completed the next stage of their mission to supplement sustained domestic success with something continental. Unleashing his trademark swallow-dive on HQ once more, Chris Ashton killed off the match after an earlier score from the again impressive Will Fraser had stretched the Fez-heads’ lead. Ultimately, Ulster did not have enough in their armoury to dent one of the most determined defences in the northern hemisphere and Ian Henderson’s reply was far too little at too late a stage.
Magnificent Munster sack Stoop while Wilkinson rolls back the years
As gnarled veterans of Europe’s premier competition, Limerick’s men in red were never going to roll over against the English champions. Even so, nobody could have predicted the manner in which Munster dismantled Harlequins in a harum-scarum second-half performance that made an utter mockery of their dismal RaboDirect Pro 12 form. Massively manic and eye-wateringly aggressive, the visitors swarmed Chris Robshaw’s shell-shocked charges at the breakdown, with Peter O’Mahony and sublime skipper Paul O’Connell both fantastic.
Centres James Downey and Casey Lualala were also exceptional, marrying huge hits with strong running lines to forge an 18-12 win that must rank as one of the provinces best. Munster have already written off their chances of upsetting Clermont, but that is only because they love being underdogs. They won’t roll over.
Half an hour into Leicester’s tie in Toulon, another shock was on the cards. Playing pragmatic, direct rugby and dominating the scrum, Tigers had opened up a 9-0 lead and appeared calm and composed in the ascendancy of such a tough task. However, great players only need a fleeting opening to take hold. When Toby Flood was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on, Jonny Wilkinson opened the hosts’ account.
From there, Toulon took hold and their indomitable skipper began playing like it was 2003. Chris Masoe, Steffon Armitage and Matt Giteau woke up in the second period as well and, in truth, Leicester only limited the loss to 21-15 thanks to some incredibly courageous defence. Wilkinson now returns to Twickenham. Someone special writes his scripts.
English trio exit the Amlin Challenge with Madigan magnificent
Before Heineken heavyweights slugged it out, the European knockouts had begun with two electric Amlin Challenge encounters on Thursday and Friday evenings, each watched by Warren Gatland and Stuart Lancaster. Firstly, Gloucester managed a valiant attempt to take the scalp of holders Biarritz at Kingsholm, ending up the wrong end of a 41-31 scoreline that was in no small part orchestrated by Shed old-boy Dimitri Yachvili. Then, an equally lively occasion in High Wycombe gave Christian Wade a chance to shine. The diminutive winger did his Lions bolter prospects no harm, scorching to a double before half-time. However, the Dubliners would not be denied, racking up five tries of their own. Fly half Ian Madigan grabbed one, adding another 23 points with his point to punctuate a 48-28 triumph.
Friday also saw Perpignan power past a lacklustre Toulouse, who succumbed 30-19 even despite the sending off of Daniel Leo with 15 minutes to play. All eyes then turned to The Rec on Saturday lunchtime to complete the draw, Bath entertaining Stade Francais. Arriving in the West Country with ambition to open up, the Parisians ran the ball with gusto. The fantastically-named Waisea Nayacalevu Vuidravuwalu bagged a brace prior to the break, before another pair of scores from Hugo Bonneval finished things off in the second half.
European semi finals
Heineken Cup: Clermont Auvergne v Munster (April 27), Saracens v Toulon (April 28).
Amilin Challenge Cup: Perpignan v Stade Francais (April 26), Leinster v Biarritz (April 27).
Try of the Weekend very nearly headed to an Amlin Challenge effort – there were certainly enough to chose from during a high-octane fixture list. However, Sitiveni Sivivatu must grab the gong after the mercurial runner weaved across the whitewash to cap a wonderful individual display that harked back to his heady All Black days.
Will Fraser and Jonny Wilkinson merit mention in the Hero of the Weekend reckoning, the former with a try-scoring tribute to his inspirational brother Henry, the latter by rekindling some of his very best at a vital time. Overlooking Paul O’Connell would be madness, mind. “I feel like an amateur player,” he said at the final whistle. That spoke volumes – the hulking lock played with unreal passion, dragging his team to a level that Harlequins could not contain. Holding his arm aloft at the end, he resembled a red-headed colossus. Fittingly so – he played like one, too.
No prizes for guessing Villain of the Weekend. With so much to play for, many of this games over the past few days boiled over. Certainly all of them were simmering precariously quite often. But spitting in the face of opposite number Peter Stringer, Jerome Fillol disgraced himself and his club. A long ban awaits.
By Charlie Morgan