Four thrilling quarter-final matches were played out in the Heineken Cup at the weekend, leaving two French teams and two Irish teams to compete for the trophy.
Some of the action was breathtaking, and although the four home teams progressed, it was by no means straightforward for any of them.
On Friday night, Leinster somehow defeated Clermont Auvergne by 29 points to 28. Brock James missed 8 attempts at goal, including a last-gasp dropped goal to send his side out of the competition.
It was a game that Clermont really should have won, and if they’d had nearly anyone else lining up at 10, they would be in the semi-finals. James looked unsure and lacking confidence, particularly at the end when his team was striving for field position to tee him up for the winning kick, and he was standing flat waiting to ship the ball on rather than take responsibility.
On Saturday, Biarritz and the Ospreys played out another game that finished 29-28 in favour of the French, and it finished in almost exactly the same manner – Dan Biggar put a dropped goal attempt right of the posts at the final whistle.
The Ospreys will consider themselves unlucky to play that well and not get a result. James Hook in midfield was particularly impressive, causing problems for the Biarritz defence every time he got the ball. Several chances were squandered, and Biarritz kept themselves in the game.
The highlight of the match was Takudzwa Ngwenya’s try, when Biarritz launched an attack from within their own 22, shipping it onto the rapid American wing. He had Mike Phillips and Shane Williams to beat, and he skinned them both on the outside with extraordinary pace and a powerful handoff.
Then Northampton arrived at Thomond Park to take on Munster, and performed heroically to give the home side a fright. They led 16-13 at half time, but ultimately succumbed 33-19 as Ronan O’Gara took control of the game to shut the opposition out.
It was another pulsating match as the Saints’ fought back after an early try for Munster with a brilliant try – quick ball, running at pace and soft hands made the most of an overlap to put Jon Clarke over the line. This sort of rugby was criminally lacking throughout the Six Nations, and it was refreshing to see Northampton’s attacking intent.
But it wasn’t to be enough as Munster regained the lead after half-time and then refused to let it go in typical Munster fashion. They took their chances as you’d expect, and refused to give any to Northampton by forcing them to play in their own half – O’Gara’s kicking from hand was remarkable.
Finally, on Sunday, Toulouse put on an impressive display to beat Stade Francais in the all-French match by 42 points to 16.
The game was characterised by typical flair, and although there were several errors, some of the handling, offloads and lines of running were a joy to watch. Yanick Jauzion of Toulouse came up against his French centre partner in the shape of Mathieu Bastereaud, and reminded him who was the better player – Jauzion’s balance in attack and strength in the tackle was the spearhead of the Toulouse attack, with those outside him benefiting from the space he creates.
Stade were in contention at half-time, but fell away in the second half so that the result was known with 20 minutes to go – something you could not say about the other three matches.
With two French and two Irish teams left, it’s a fair reflection of the state of European rugby, and of the pecking order determined by the Six Nations. The French are just on top and will enjoy home advantage in both semi-finals.
I fancy a Toulouse v Munster final, with the Toulouse getting their revenge over the Irish in Paris.
The semi-final draw is as follows:
1 May, 15:45 – Toulouse v Leinster
2 May, 15:15 – Biarritz v Munster