By Sarah Mockford
CLERMONT AUVERGNE demonstrated just why they are the favourites to lift the Heineken Cup this year as they clinically saw off Montpellier. Rugby World, however, has decided to pinpoint a few individuals, rather than teams, who stood out over the weekend. Interestingly none of our chosen four are on the long list for the European Player of the Year award, but they all impressed in their quarter-finals…
Simon Zebo and Casey Laulala showed flashes of magic, Conor Murray bossed things from the base and Peter O’Mahony was ever-present at the breakdown, but none of these Munstermen could match the performance of their captain against Harlequins. Only a few games into his return from a back injury, O’Connell was simply immense. He was everywhere for Munster – stealing lineouts, getting stuck in at the contact area, carrying hard and even finding himself putting in linking passes in the back-line. He says he’s still got a wee way to go fitness-wise, but that wasn’t evident on Sunday afternoon. It would appear he has quickly rediscovered his best – right in time for Lions selection! Welcome back Paulie.
Not only did the former All Black wing create one try and score another as Clermont Auvergne dispatched Montpellier from the competition, but he was a constant threat in attack. It’s Clermont’s massive pack that provides the possession, bit Sivivatu knows just what to do with it; with his speed and step teams have to watch him intently or they will be punished. Even in the smallest of spaces he can beat defenders and when he makes those breaks he has the support within the Clermont ranks to get across the line. Munster will no doubt be wary of the danger he presents and will want to close him down quickly and effectively in their semi-final in Montpellier later this month.
He’s still got it! Nigh on ten years have passed since Wilkinson dropped a goal to win England the World Cup, but the fly-half is still letting his boots do the talking on the rugby pitch. In the tight, edgy affair with Leicester, Toulon needed his calming influence – and his ability to dissect the posts didn’t hurt either. He slotted all 21 of Toulon’s points, including a late drop-goal, and it could end up being a battle of the kickers when he faces Owen Farrell of Saracens in the semi-final in a few weeks at Twickenham – a ground he’s somewhat familiar with. Farrell is the obvious back-up to Johnny Sexton as Lions fly-half but it would be folly to rule out Jonny W too. He certainly knows how to wound the Wallabies…
The lack of a true openside in their ranks was keenly felt by England in their Six Nations defeat by Wales in the last round of the Six Nations. With no turnover maestro there was no Grand Slam. Fraser could well be the answer. The flanker has been given his chance with Saracens this season and has continually impressed, as he did yet again in the win over Ulster at Twickenham. He burrowed over for a crucial try, albeit from a lineout that shouldn’t have been Saracens’ ball, and proved a pain in the proverbial around the tackle area as Ulster conceded 13 turnovers. If he hadn’t already entered Stuart Lancaster’s thinking ahead of England’s tour to Argentina, he surely will have now.
Heineken Cup semi-finals (kick-offs UK time)
Saturday 27 April Clermont Auvergne v Munster (5pm, Stade de la Mosson, Montpellier)
Sunday 28 April Saracens v Toulon (3pm, Twickenham)
Tickets are available via Ticketmaster