And then there was one. The weekend started with such optimism, with three Irish provinces in the mix for a Heineken Cup semi-final spot. For one reason or another, two fell by the wayside and now it’s left to Munster to carry the hopes of a nation.
Thomond Park was rocking yesterday and Toulouse just couldn’t cope with the intensity that Rob Penney’s men brought to the game. Munster were magnificent from the beginning and the away side looked beaten after only four minutes when Keith Earls dotted down in the corner. However they hung on and Keatley and McAllister traded penalties leaving Munster 4 points up at the break.
Five Munster tries in a superb second half did for Toulouse, with the home forwards dominating Picamole and company at the breakdown and in the set-piece. After struggling for scores against Leinster last week, Penney will be delighted that 6 different players crossed the whitewash for five-pointers yesterday.
Munster fans must have been worried when captain Peter O’Mahony was benched with a shoulder complaint early on but his replacement CJ Stander put in a man-of-the-match performance, with a try to top off an excellent effort at the break-down. Munster will need all their forward options for the semi-final in three week’s time.
So then it was Ulster’s turn yesterday evening to compete for a place in the semi-finals. Mark Anscombe’s charges welcomed to Ravenhill a Saracens side who in Chris Ashton boasted the top try scorer in the competition this year with seven in the pool stages. Clermont Auvergne awaited the winners following their victory over Leicester in the afternoon. Ulster began as favourites, and considering how close they ran Saracens after losing Jared Payne to a red card in the fourth minute, Rory Best to injury not long after, and Ruen Pienaar with half an hour to go, it was probably a title they deserved.
The northern province stayed within touching distance right until the end, and when Jerome Garces looks back on the Payne red card he may review his decision not to administer a more lenient punishment. The full-back did take his his opposite number Alex Goode out in the air, but although it was dangerous it looked entirely accidental as both men went for the ball. Ulster’s supporters were vocal from before kick-off but following that decision they acted as a 15th man and Saracens were lucky to emerge with a 17-15 victory.
Leinster travelled to Toulon today knowing that a win would set up a mouth-watering semi-final with Munster at the Aviva in three week’s time. It was always going to be a big ask however, facing the 2013 champions in their home fortress. The power of the Toulon pack coupled with the strength of Mathieu Bastareaud and running threat across the back line was much lauded before the kick-off. Both sides made mistakes early on, but even the withdrawal of Jonny Wilkinson early on didn’t hamper Toulon’s game plan unduly. They may have kicked for territory more if he had stayed on the field but their forwards were more than capable of battering Leinster into submission.
The sides went in level at half time with the score at six all. The first five minutes of the second half left Leinster with a mountain to climb however after a Giteau penalty was followed by a converted Chiocci try. Toulon went on to score a further two tries and two penalties while Leinster could only manage one penalty and a Jordi Murphy try late on. Even with Toulon reduced to fourteen men for the final ten minutes, Leinster could not camp themselves in enemy territory for long enough to launch any meaningful attacks. It was no fairytale European ending for Brian O’Driscoll but he couldn’t be faulted for his effort today. Mistakes were made by both sides but a few missed tackles and some poor handling contributed to Leinster’s downfall.
So Munster must travel to Marseille to take on Toulon three weeks from today. It will be interesting to see what sort of a proposition the French side are outside of the Stade Felix Mayol. One thing is for sure however, Munster’s pack must bring their A-game if they are to compete with the gargantuan Toulon forwards. O’Connell and O’Mahony against Armitage and Roussow. It promises to be some encounter.
Feature picture: inpho.ie