By Katie Field
Ulster went into the final weekend of Heineken Cup pool matches as the top ranked team and duly completed a near-perfect qualifying campaign, making it six wins out of six with a 22-19 win at Leicester Tigers. Their back row were in storming form but the Man of the Match was scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, who oozed class and composure from the first whistle to the last and scored all of Ulster’s points.
With his side trailing 19-9 at one stage, the No 9 ensured his team didn’t panic and they took control of the match and won the group, earning themselves a home quarter-final against Saracens and condemning Leicester to a trip to Clermont Auvergne, who haven’t lost at home in 72 games.
Home advantage is a handy thing to have in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and Munster relish nothing more than a massive match at their Thomond Park fortress. Before the last round of pool matches they were heading for an away quarter-final as they were ranked sixth among the probable qualifiers. However, the Irish side knew what they needed to do and rose to the occasion magnificently, beating Edinburgh 38-6 to claim the five points they needed to rise to fourth out of the eight quarter-finalists.
Captain Peter O’Mahony scored the crucial fourth try, but it was a great team effort featuring outstanding work from James Coughlan and Paul O’Connell. Toulouse will need to bring their A game to Thomond Park in April to have any hope of stopping Munster in their tracks.
The Scarlets hosted Harlequins in a winner-takes-all clash with a place in the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals at stake. The Welsh side were leading 20-19 inside the final five minutes when they conceded a penalty.
Quins’ regular kicker Nick Evans was suffering with cramp, so Ben Botica stepped up to the tee knowing a successful kick would keep his team’s European season alive, but a miss would in all likelihood kill it stone dead. Yes, it was a relatively straightforward penalty but the pressure could hardly have been greater. Botica was equal to the occasion and found the target to steal a 22-20 win.
Bath fly-half George Ford made it 45 points in three games in the Amlin Challenge Cup this season with his haul of 17 against Bordeaux-Begles this weekend and ensured Bath maintained their 100% winning record in their pool matches.
The 54-13 victory which featured a try and six conversions from the nerveless Ford, kept Bath ahead of London Wasps in the Amlin rankings and thereby earned them a home quarter-final against Brive in April.
Nice one, Nigel
It’s great to hear a referee come out with a good one-liner and Nigel Owens lightened the mood of the tense encounter between Leicester and Ulster at Welford Road when he had to tick off Tigers centre Anthony Allen. Unhappy about something Allen had done, Owens advised him “the football ground is 500 metres that way” if he wanted to continue to misbehave.
For the second season in succession not a single Welsh region has reached the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup or the Amlin Challenge Cup. The Ospreys had already blown their chances before this weekend’s 36-3 capitulation at the hands of Leinster, but the Blues and the Scarlets still had a sniff, before losing at home to Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins respectively.
Yes, the regions have less money to spend on their squads than the French, Irish and English teams, but when the Ospreys can boast of having six British and Irish Lions in their starting pack they cannot use that as an excuse at the moment. There is a massive amount of talent in these Welsh regional sides this season, but for some reason they are unable to get near to replicating the success of the Welsh national side. With a number of players heading to English and French clubs for next season, that situation looks likely to get worse, not better.
A little respect
Clubs drawn in the Heineken Cup pool which contains the weakest Italian side, at present Zebre, know they have a better-than-average chance of harvesting enough points to claim a home quarter-final. Toulouse must have fancied their chances of doing just that when this season’s competition began, but a lack of respect for their weaker opponents has been the French side’s undoing.
They produced a winning double against their toughest pool rivals, Saracens (17-16 away and 21-11 at home) but weren’t mentally switched on enough against Zebre or Connacht to take full advantage. Toulouse lost at home to the Irish side 16-14 and although they did the double over Zebre, their failure to glean a try bonus point this weekend means they must travel to Munster for the quarter-finals instead of playing at home. Talk about looking a gift-cheval in the mouth!
When your team is 20-19 up with four minutes to go and heading for a place in the Amlin Cup quarter-finals, it is essential to keep a cool head. Unfortunately, the Scarlets hooker Emyr Phillips failed to do that against Harlequins and charged up to hit a ruck from an offside position as the Welsh side tried to keep the Londoners at bay. His over-eagerness presented Quins with a simple penalty chance and that was all it took to turn a home win into a defeat and send the Scarlets out of Europe. Good discipline in defence wins matches. It’s a lesson Phillips has learned the hard way.
The wrong card
Connacht tighthead Nathan White escaped with a yellow card rather than a red despite seeming to catch Brad Barritt’s face with his boot during the Heineken Cup pool clash with Saracens. Referee Leighton Hodges and TMO Gareth Simmonds both agreed to sin-bin White instead of sending him off, saying they couldn’t see the incident clearly enough. However, the television pictures seems to show the boot contacting with the face and White was lucky the officials decided to fudge the issue.