With so much action over the weekend, here is a bumper round-up of the best bits.
Toulon cruise through as Munster are left behind
Looks really can convey a thousand words, and no facial expression summed up better the result at the Stade Mayol then that of Donncha O’Callaghan as the Pool Three clash between Toulon and Munster drew to a close on Sunday evening. The look of despair on his face as he watched the final few minutes unfold before him from the sideline showed firstly just how much this competition means to Munster, and secondly an air of disbelief that for the first time in the Heineken Cup they would not be progressing towards the knockout stages. In his absence when in the sin bin, Toulon scored 13 points.
Sunday’s game was all about Toulon. They have battled, powered, and to an extent shocked their way into this year’s quarter finals. It is far too easy to simply focus on Jonny Wilkinson, as Toulon possess far more weapons in their armoury than perhaps people appreciate. Their work in particular at the scrum was huge, as they targeted an area that is no longer a secret chink in Munster’s armour.
While Jonny was excellent with his kicking at goal, finishing on 22 points, the real standout was Pierre Mignoni at scrum-half. Set to retire at the end of the season, his vision for Christian Loamanu’s try and then raw pace as he laterally crossed the field to create a huge overlap on the right hand side for Paul Sackey’s score, were both world-class examples of his ability. Mignoni is one of the true old school breed of terrier scrum-halves; a constant nuisance for the opposition, both in the way he hounds his opposite man at the scrum and is never afraid to wind up his opponent with some choice words, just look at Ronan O’Gara’s sin binning for a reference. In an excellent team performance, he was a great standout.
Coming back to Munster, all of the immediate post-match talk on Sky seemed to be labelling this as “the end of an era” and time to look to the future. The reality is that this Munster side still have an excellent chance of winning the Magners League, and that as dark as times may seem now, there is talent coming through. As tipped by The Rugby Blog contributor Conor Buckley, they have three excellent prospects in lock Ian Nagle, back-row Peter O’Mahony and scrum-half Conor Murray coming through, plus given their heritage and reputation as one of the world’s best club sides, bringing in top International players should not prove to be a problem in the busy transfer market that comes with every World Cup year. They must consolidate, not tear the whole house down. Apart from perhaps Toulouse, no side is as strongly associated with this tournament as Munster, and their absence from the quarter finals for any rugby supporter will feel surreal.
Leicester’s power too great for the Scarlets flair
In a battle of rugby ideologies, Leicester’s strength in the scrums and mauls crushed any hope the Scarlets had of progressing on Saturday evening. Whilst it would be unfair to label Leicester as purely being interested in a power contest, given the soft hands from George Chuter for Alesana Tuilagi’s try, it was in those areas where Leicester simply had too much for the ambitious Scarlets.
The Welsh side’s flair has been wonderful to watch, Rhys Priestland’s try against Perpignan in Round One being the perfect example, but the way they couldn’t handle Leicester’s power was an indication of how you need to be able to adapt your game plan, and unfortunately the Scarlets simply couldn’t match up. Jonathan Davies in the centre put in another brilliant performance as he guns for a spot in the Welsh starting line-up in the Six Nations after missing the Autumn Internationals, and Tavis Knoyle was also in good form at scrum-half. But in Josh Turnbull the Scarlets have a real gem of an openside flanker. His speed is incredible for a back-row forward, and Leicester at times couldn’t handle his breaks up-field as he persistently broke through the line.
As for Leicester, Ben Youngs’ breakaway score was a reminder of why you can never give him a sniff of an opportunity. His try killed off the game as a contest, and with England team mate Toby Flood also kicking very well in the wet, England’s half backs look good going into the Six Nations. It has been nine years since Leicester’s last Heineken Cup title, having lost the final in 2007 and 2009, but maybe this could be their year.
Leinster smash Saracens for six, Ulster edge out Biarritz and Irish finally win!
The 2009 champions were hugely impressive on Saturday afternoon as they strolled past an already eliminated Saracens side to book their spot in the last eight. The stand-out Leinster player was definitely Sean O’Brien, the Ireland flanker’s strength in attack and defence outstanding, and his fellow back-row Dominic Ryan also managed to score a pair of tries. Of the Irish teams in this year’s tournament they have easily been the most impressive. One particular highlight was Brian O’Driscoll’s brilliant hands and offload to Isa Nacewa for Leinster’s fifth try, the Ireland skipper showing a nice touch of class.
Ulster battled away in foul Belfast conditions to gain an important win against Biarritz at Ravenhill thanks to Ian Humphries boot, more on him later. The conditions were a world away from the tropics of the south coast of France, and although the visitors will be disappointed with the loss, qualification for the last eight is not impossible after they picked up a crucial bonus point. Ulster currently occupy the eighth seed spot, and if they win against Aironi next weekend will progress as group winners.
Meanwhile in Reading, London Irish, whilst already eliminated from this year’s tournament, ended the Ospreys’ hopes of qualifying for the quarter finals with their first win since October, scoring two tries through Sailosi Tagicakibau and Topsy Ojo. It was Irish’s most fluid performance in months, as a result of Daniel Bowden’s swagger and threat at fly-half. The front five also worked tirelessly, notably the academy products Alex Corbisiero and Matt Garvey, whilst England full back Delon Armitage was on fire at full-back following his return to the side.
As for the Ospreys, how a side with that much talent and world-class internationals cannot reach the knockout stages is mystifying. Their lack of composure under pressure proved to be their main downfall, along some seriously poor hands and lapses in defence. Alun Wyn Jones’ brutal honesty afterwards though was admirable; “Our decision-making at key times let us down which is becoming a bullshit trend for us”.
Dan Biggar has not matured at fly-half as expected, and their big runners on the pitch such as Jerry Collins, Wyn Jones and Jonathan Thomas just aren’t making the ground or breaking the tackles that are needed for the Ospreys to gain any momentum. Their early salvo aside, when Mike Phillips was held up with about 37 seconds on the clock, the Irish defence whilst busy never looked in any great panic. Where the club goes from here, in terms of recruitment with their best player James Hook departing and also with regards to the coaching staff, will be interesting over the coming months.
Try of the weekend goes to Julien Candelon of Perpignan for his length of the field score against Treviso. Starting pretty much on their own try line, the ball went wide through the hands of David Marty to Candelon still inside his 22, before the left winger sped away, scorching the ground as he headed under the posts from about 85 metres out. A wonderful effort.
Moving onto this week’s Hero award, Paul Diggin and Matt Banahan both deserve credit for their impressive achievement of both scoring four tries in the wins for Northampton and Bath respectively, but the winner is Ian Humphreys of Ulster. His mega long range kick from within his own half sailed over to give Ulster the lead with minutes to spare, and they were rewarded for some incredibly dogged defensive work with a great 9-6 victory over last year’s runners up Biarritz. Nerves of steel from the Ulster marksman.
The less prestigious Villain award for this week goes to the whole of the Newcastle Falcons side for failing to score any points in front of their home fans as they lost 0-6 against Montpellier. They remain without a win in 2011, and this abysmal effort will not exactly have the fans rushing to renew their season tickets.
That’s all for this week’s bumper edition of the Best of the Weekend, many thanks for reading. Check back to The Rugby Blog for more reaction and video highlights from the last weekend, as well as previews of the games coming up in Round Six.
By Ben Coles