The Heineken Cup semi-finals delivered as always on Easter weekend to see Ulster, Edinburgh, Clermont and champions Leinster go through to the last four. Here are the best bits:
Historical victory for ‘little brother’ Ulster in Limerick
There are moments when the smallest details can be over-examined, but not when it comes to the fitness of Stephen Ferris. The 2009 Loin has been a tour de force in recent seasons, yet with his fitness unknown as his ankle was strapped and injected into shape, against Munster he produced one of the more sensational performances of the season.
In a dominant first half where Ferris alongside Johann Muller, Rory Best and Chris Henry in particular put in countless tackles, Ulster screeched into a 19-0 lead thanks to the boot of the outstanding Ruan Pienaar and a magical try from Craig Gilroy. Munster typically clawed their way back with Simon Zebo’s try and a Ronan O’Gara penalty to trail 10-19 at half time with the momentum behind them. But although Munster noticeably shifted up a gear in the second half, with James Coughlan and Paul O’Connell starting to carry, they could not create that winning try, the outstanding Ulster defence meaning although over a 10 minute period Munster had 96% possession, it was not to be their day.
Edinburgh’s “David” downs the “Goliath” Toulouse to reach the semi-finals
It has been a long eight years since a Scottish side reached the quarter-finals, yet now Edinburgh have gone further than any side in history by reaching a first Heineken Cup semi-final. The prospect of taking on the five time champions Toulouse appeared a bridge too far before Saturday lunchtime’s kick off, but Edinburgh started with a bang, Mike Blair crossing the try line in under two minutes after poor control under the high ball. It was then down to Greig Laidlaw to keep the scoreboard ticking over, which Scotland’s latest number 10 did to good effect, so much so that with his final penalty in the 79th minute victory was confirmed.
The battle was won in the back row, where despite another illustrious performance from Thierry Dusautoir, the work rate of Ross Rennie, Dave Denton and Natani Talei was unrelenting as they made countless tackles and a nuisance of any Toulouse ball. The home side’s domination of both territory and possession told even though they couldn’t land the knockout blow, leading to fantastic celebrations from a record 37,881 crowd at Murrayfield.
Saracens thumped by Clermont as Leinster’s excellence tells against Cardiff
English representation in Europe came to a close on Sunday evening following the exit of English champions Saracens from the Heineken Cup. They were brutally taken apart by the visiting Clermont Auvergne, whose yellow and blue band of fans were on fantastic form in the stands. What helped matters was that Brock James had one of his better days in the Heineken Cup, coming on as an early substitute for David Skrela but kicking 17 points. Saracens endeavour in the end was far too one dimensional, whilst the nous of Jacques Burger at openside flanker was sorely missed against the twin threat of Alexandre Lapandry and Julien Bonnaire. It means that Saracens must wait another year to become a major player at this level, whilst Clermont will host favourites Leinster in a mouth-watering encounter in Bordeaux.
The reason for Leinster’s favourite tag comes down to the way they clinically, yet beautifully took apart the Cardiff Blues. Travelling to Dublin for this game was probably the last thing Cardiff wanted after a hellish week, and judging by their defensive lapses their concentration and confidence was way off the mark. Their defence certainly perked up in the final 20 minutes as Leinster looked to give the scoreline a more attractive edge, but the damage was done by half-time.
French dominance shines through in the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-finals
All four French sides progressed to the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-finals after defeating Anglo-Welsh opposition over the last weekend, the most resounding result coming at the Stade Mayol where Toulon hammered Premiership leaders Harlequins by 37-8, with Jonny Wilkinson kicking 17 points before going off due to injury and a try for Man of the Match Steffon Armitage. The slip in the tunnel from Quins captain George Robson was a sign of things to come for the visitors, whose attentions now firmly lie on the Premiership title.
Exeter put in a brave performance on Thursday night in Paris against Stade Français, the returning Sireli Naqelevuki scoring a superb try late on before Paul Williams snatched victory for the hosts with a try of his own in the 79th minute. Wasps also came close to beating French opposition in their home defeat to Biarritz, where despite coming back with two tries in three minutes from Christian Wade and Ryan Davis they fell short to a Dimitri Yachvili penalty in the 75th minute. The final match saw Riaan Swanepoel kick give penalties in Brive’s 15-11 victory over the Scarlets.
Stormers stay unbeaten as the Blues continue to struggle
Despite playing their first match outside of South Africa in 2012, the Stormers kept their winning run going against the Highlanders in Dunedin thanks to an outstanding try from Joe Pietersen, whose boot also racked up the majority of their points. It means that the Highlanders drop down the 5th on the log, with the Chiefs replacing them in second spot following their win over the Western Force in Perth.
Down the bottom the Blues miserable run continued with a 34-23 loss against the Rebels in Melbourne, James O’Connor starring for the home side in their second win of the season. The Lions continued to struggle also after being hammered by local rivals the Cheetahs, Robert Ebersohn grabbing two tries. The Reds finally ended their losing streak with victory over the Brumbies in Brisbane, whilst the Hurricanes ran in six tries against the Sharks. The Bulls picked up the final win of the weekend at home to the Crusaders, winning 32-30.
Try of the Weekend goes to Brian O’Driscoll of Leinster. A fantastic set-piece move saw Johnny Sexton blindly flick the ball inside to Luke Fitzgerald, who drew in Leigh Halfpenny before feeding O’Driscoll to score under the posts. Perfection.
This weekend’s Hero could have been Ruan Pienaar of Greig Laidlaw, but Stephen Ferris was phenomenal for Ulster against Munster.
No obvious candidates for a Villain this week, but Cardiff’s defence was so leaky in the first half that they gave themselves no chance in Dublin.
by Ben Coles