1. Fallen Giants
Toulouse were awful against Munster at Thomond Park. A brilliant Hosea Gear try aside, there was no inspiration and far less desire than their opposition. Quite how they expected to come to Thomond Park and beat Munster with such an insipid display, it is tough to understand. Toulouse were once European royalty, but this season has seen them lose at home to Connacht and fail to get a try bonus point at Zebre. No disrespect to either of those sides, but with the resources at Toulouse’s disposal they should be steamrolling such European minnows. Guy Noves rightly has his place in Toulousain folklore, but surely it is time to freshen things up at this once great club?
2. Reigning champions in the mood
Toulon are playing like the reigning champions. They have not always been at their best this season, but against Leinster they really turned it on. Given the list of players they have at their disposal, of course, they should win nearly every game, but it doesn’t always work like that. What they are starting to engender is a bit more spirit amongst the group of galacticos. When Jonny Wilkinson was forced off through injury it could have been the catalyst for them to collapse, as they perhaps would have done a couple of seasons ago. Instead, Matt Giteau stepped into the breach and led a performance that made Leinster look thoroughly average – something they most certainly aren’t.
3. A ridiculous record goes on
So it is now 75 games won in a row at the Stade Marcel Michelin for Clermont Auvergne, a record that stretches back to 2009. It is a quite ridiculous run of wins, especially when you consider that they look far from infallible. Away from home they lose regularly, while several of their top players, although they still possess bags of quality, are the wrong side of 30. Against the Tigers they played well for 40 minutes but were very vulnerable by the final whistle, camped on their own line forced to repel wave after wave of green shirts, and Quins also pushed them close earlier in the season. And yet, records like this don’t happen by accident – the belief they have playing at home, in front of their raucous support, means they always turn up expecting to win, and having that in your psyche is so important at the top end of professional sport.
4. Red doesn’t ruin the day
Much has been written about this so we’re not going to go into whether it was the right decision or not, but Jared Payne’s sending off was obviously the most controversial moment of the weekend. What has got lost amongst all the talk of ‘eyes on the ball’ and ‘intent’ is just how good a 14-man Ulster side were. They had absolutely no right to be within striking distance come the final play, and that they managed to engineer a 35-phase move that almost won them the game, after they were to a man out on their feet after playing 75 minutes a man down, is a testament to the spirit of that team. A game that could have been ruined so early on was not, and that is all down to an astonishingly gutsy performance from the hosts. The new Ravenhill also seems to be acting as that fabled ’16th man’, so when you think about it, it was almost 15 on 15 anyway…
5. European elite emerge
When all is said and done, we have the same four teams in the semi-finals as last year. This is the first time that this has happened in Heineken Cup history. No one can argue that these are four of the best teams the Northern Hemisphere have to offer. Toulon and Clermont will enter the penultimate rounds as favourites, but really any of the final four would be worthy winners. The French duo have the most quality on paper, but Munster’s incredible spirit consistently lifts them to higher places than their squad roster and resources should allow them to, while Saracens have developed their basic blueprint for success to become, on their day, one of the best attacking sides around. However you look at it, we have two mouth-watering semi-finals to look forward to.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images