Best of the weekend: Top quality across the board in European quarters

heineken
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

Follow Charlie on Twitter: @CharlieFelix

16 thoughts on “Best of the weekend: Top quality across the board in European quarters

  1. I have a Quins season ticket, and I was at the game yesterday; and in all my life I have never seen the kind of support the Munster fans showed. I quite literally felt like I had woken up in Limerick and Quins were playing away. I am pretty sure that the Munster fans outnumbered us yesterday; and if they didn’t; they were definitely louder!

    Onto the actual rugby, and O’Connell was immense! (Lions captain!?!?) He was everywhere and Quins could not handle the Munster pack.

  2. Sorry, forgot to mention. Is anyone else looking forward to the Sky Sports montages of “Wilkinson vs Farrell” at Twickenham?

    1. No, I’m not!

      Amazing performance from Munster and POC. Had shades of the Welsh approach in the last six nations match – just blast every single contact until the opposition don’t know which way to turn. Extremely effective. If POC can show he’s back to fitness by performing similarly in the semi final then he must be pushing hard for the tour.

      My lowlight/villain of the weekend was the sour grapes from the ex-Ulsterman on Sky after the Saracens match. Apparently it’s “effective” but “who would want to be a back in that Saracens team when it’s so boring?”. Well I’m pretty sure every single Saracens back is happier than every single Ulster back this morning. Say a little when you win, say less when you lose. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate a brilliant defence needs to watch a different sport.

      1. … Especially when you base the criticism on one game you’ve just lost. Since they’ve been on the artificial pitch they’ve been playing with plenty of pace and ambition.

        Well done to them, they wanted it more and fully deserved the win.

  3. Real talismanic stuff from PoC, that gets him a touring spot (probably at the expense of Launcbury) in my opinion. Really fancied Quins for that one, but Munster were magnificent.

    Lancaster must have been kicking himself for not bringing in a wolf to his team meetings in the 6N, as Ashton was certainly flying into the tackles.

  4. P.O’C has been missed by Munster in the Pro12 this season. This man is amazing, although it is said one man does not make a team, this guy can drag every last breath and effort from his team mates. As for the comment regarding Munster fans, they are absolutely brilliant, as a Welshman I have supported Munster for many a year, and boy am I glad I have. Onwards to the final and beyond The Men in RED.

  5. Well the return of POC could have gone one of two ways, and I kind of suspected that he would be back, but not quite up to scratch, Quins woudl squeeze through and we would all write off his Lions credibility.

    Just goes to show! His long lay-off, imho, must be very good news for the summer if he can maintain this form.

  6. Toulon-Leicester. Not sure that the Armitages did themselves any England-related favours. Not terrible, but nothing special, and Delon seemed consumed with winding up Toby Flood for most of the game.

    Tom Youngs, Mat Tait, Anthony Allen and Nick Kennedy all looked really good and apart from the former, none are really in the England mix at the moment.

    Shame about Tom Croft. It was interesting that his replacement by Waldrom really upset the balance of the back-row, as neither he nor Crane are quick enough for 6. Thought that Salvi had to rely more on Allen and Tuilagi for breakdown support and that really hampered Leicesters wider defence.

    Fernandez-Lobbe a fantastic player still isn’t he?

  7. i agree with brighty that making comments about the manner of the opposing teams play is lame, especially in the qf stage. saracens were hardly going to play the same style as they did against edinburgh in the pool stages, different ball game.

    @jacob: i believe there were 3000 munster fans at the game which is enough for a small stadium. munster had to turn up to win that match but they are a proper tournament side so it wasnt a big surprise.

    btw that loss will really eat o’shea up. i wonder if he’ll take interest in the ireland job now and is he up to it? Penney looked like the real boss in that encounter. munster beat them away without howlett and looked in command for most of the second half

    1. To be honest I can’t believe there were only 3000, it felt like even more than that! Incredible atmosphere!

      And that is a good point on O’Shea, his head may turn now for the Ireland job! That isn’t good news for Quins, and I am sure that he is ready for the Ireland job!

    2. “that loss will really eat o’shea up. i wonder if he’ll take interest in the ireland job now and is he up to it?”

      Seriously? Surely after getting dumped out of the HC, walking away is the very last thing he would want to do. Even if he was “up to” the Irish job, would the Irish want someone who walks away just because they lose a game.

      I don’t know the guy but he doesn’t strike me as that sort of quitter.

      1. I see what you mean Blub; but I was never convinced by his lack of interest in the Ireland job anyway. I think this Quins team has over-achieved slightly with last years title win – and he may think he can walk away having taken Quins to their first title.

  8. You might be right Jakob, but from a neutral perspective, I hope he stays, and whenever he does come to leave Quins, it is on a positive note (which I suppose could be after they retain the Premiership!).

    1. Yeh exactly. I’m actually not a Quins fan, but I have a season ticket there (I’m a Wasps fan living with Quins quite close to Twickenham) – and I would rather he stayed as I think Quins play an exciting brand of rugby under him and it is good to go and watch!

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