By Katie Field
Walloped 40-7 at home by Leinster in the Heineken Cup last weekend, Northampton Saints produced one of rugby’s all-time great comebacks to beat the Irish giants 18-9 at the Aviva Stadium. Jim Mallinder’s team were unrecognisable from the limp, insipid side that capitulated in the first leg of the double-header. They led from the sixth minute with a try from George North and seemed to have sealed the match when a Kahn Fotuali’i drop-goal put them 13-9 up with two minutes to play.
But Leinster almost snatched the game in stoppage time as they battered the Saints’ line in a breathless 20-phase attack. They seemed certain to score and break Northampton’s hearts, but with 81 minutes on the clock Jamie Heaslip spilt the ball and Saints’ wing Jamie Elliott raced the length of the pitch to score a try which denied the hosts even a losing bonus point. Many more finishes like this and the English sides are going to miss the Heineken Cup next year…
To see the match highlights, including the remarkable final moments, follow this link.
Never, ever write off Munster in a Heineken Cup match, until the final whistle. They have proved time and time again that they don’t know when they are beaten and on Saturday one of their young guns, JJ Hanrahan, added his name to the long list of Munster Heineken heroes when he scored a magnificent injury-time try to steal a win in Perpignan.
Munster had trailed 9-3 at half-time, but the lead changed hands five times in a ding-dong second half. It had looked like being Perpignan’s day when a try from Tommaso Benvenuti put them 17-13 ahead with less than a minute to go, but Munster attacked down the right and replacement back Hanrahan stepped and scampered in from outside the 22 to snatch the 18-17 win for the Irish side. Incroyable.
Edinburgh went into their clash with Gloucester at Kingsholm as underdogs after losing 23-12 to them at Murrayfield last Sunday. Their hopes of a unlikely victory became even more slender when fly-half Harry Leonard failed a fitness test on a leg injury before kick-off and Greig Tonks had to don the No 10 jersey for the first time at professional level.
But the Scots proceeded to out-think and outplay Gloucester, beating them 16-10 with a try from Ben Atiga and 11 points from the boot of Jack Cuthbert. If only they hadn’t been so error-prone last weekend, Edinburgh could have been challenging Munster at the top of Pool Six.
Singing the Blues
There may be more for Welsh rugby fans to fret over than celebrate at the moment, with the ever-deepening off-field crisis involving the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions, but Cardiff Blues are giving their supporters a reason to smile after back-to-back wins over Pro12 title-chasers Glasgow Warriors.
Friday’s 9-7 win over the Scots may not have been a showpiece, but any win at Scotstoun is to be cherished and coming as it did on the back of the Blues’ 29-20 home triumph over the same opponents the weekend before, it makes them serious contenders in Heineken Cup Pool Two.
Two penalties from Leigh Halfpenny and a 62m cannon from Rhys Patchell were enough to secure the win this time. Cardiff have to travel toToulon before playing Exeter at home in January, so they still have plenty of hard work to do, but it’s far more than any of their fans would have expected when 36-3 down after 40 minutes at Sandy Park.
Jamie slips up
He has enjoyed many a glorious day with Leinster, but Saturday’s defeat by Northampton will not be one Jamie Heaslip wants to remember. One minute he was in the thick of a sustained, powerful attack as Leinster tried to pinch a victory at the death, and the next minute the ball slipped through his fingers as he tried to set up the next wave of pressure, and Northampton wing Jamie Elliott pounced on the loose ball and charged 95 metres to score a try which denied Leinster even a losing bonus point.
Heaslip had his head in his hands as soon as the ball was gone. It was not the present he wanted as he prepared to celebrate his 30th birthday the next day.
Worries for Warriors
As the turn of the year approaches, Glasgow Warriors find themselves among the clubs whose European dream is over for another year. Back-to-back defeats by Cardiff Blues have left the Scottish side with just seven points from their first four Heineken Cup pool matches and they have no alternative in 2014 but to concentrate on their RaboDirect Pro 12 campaign.
The Warriors are desperate to prove themselves at European level after showing they are real contenders in the Rabo, but they will have to wait another year, at least.
Those who say the Heineken Cup is a flawed competition because not all teams have to make the same effort to qualify can point at Zebre in glee this week, as the Italian side sits on the bottom of Pool Three with no wins and no points from their first four games.
After losing 64-3 to Saracens this weekend, they have a points difference of minus 150 and they can look forward to travelling to Connacht then entertaining Toulouse in January.
European rugby’s elite competition cannot afford to accommodate such a weak side because they skew the whole competition. The teams who play them in the pool stage have an enhanced chance of reaching the quarter-finals as one of the two best runners up because they can rack up the bonus points and tries, which is unfair on the teams in tougher pools.