Surviving the last eight
April 7, 2010
Richard Hill applauds the Vicarage Road faithful following Saracens' victory over the Ospreys © Getty Images
Getting out of the group stages of the Heineken Cup is a fiendishly difficult task. If you're not getting battered by Clermont in the snow you're losing to Treviso (Perpignan, we're looking at you), so the quarter-finals are a veritable minefield for those hardy enough to have made it. Through the years Europe's top competition has thrown up some classic meetings in the last eight, a few of which have made it into our latest Scrum Seven.
Toulouse 35-41 Leinster, Stade Municipal, 2006
The final may have been all red as Munster finally got their mitts on the silverware, but it was the blue of Leinster that decorated the last eight. An away draw to Toulouse is usually on a par with rolling in stinging nettles in terms of enjoyment for the visitors, but powered by the nerveless Felipe Contepomi and some breathtaking backs play Leinster warmed to their task admirably.
Brian O'Driscoll scored one of his greatest tries by ghosting through the Toulouse line, Denis Hickie showed a clean pair of heels to the men in red with a length-of-the-field effort and Shane Horgan was on hand to power over. Flanker Cam Jowitt, now with the Waratahs, popped up to score a crowd pleaser following another one of Freddie Michalak's pressure-induced forays into comedy, and Leinster went home happy. Until the semi-final at Lansdowne Road, when Munster ensured that they went home sad.
Castres 22-21 Montferrand, Stade Pierre Antoine, 2002
No player knows the pain of Montferrand/Clermont Auvergne's so-near, yet so-far journey more than wing Aurelien Rougerie. A one-club man and now inspirational skipper, he has experienced all of their lows as domestic and European glory has eluded them at every turn.
In their 2002 all-French quarter-final against Castres, Rougerie dropped the last-minute pass that would have secured a Heineken semi-final, the try-line at his mercy. The game had been dominated by the boots of Gerald Merceron and Romain Teulet, with Scotland fly-half Gregor Townsend also landing a drop-goal for Castres. Back-rower Romain Froment scored the only try of the game for the home side before Rougerie's costly lapse.
Llanelli Scarlets 24-15 Munster, Stradey Park, 2007
Having finally secured their title in 2006, Munster's defence came to a sorry end at the historic home of the Scarlets. The home side were streets ahead of their more illustrious opponents on the night, attacking relentlessly as confetti continued to litter the pitch from the pre-match festivities. Dafydd James, at one time the Heineken Cup's leading try-scorer, and flanker Gavin Thomas pounced for tries to set up a 17-0 half-time lead.
Despite Munster's Ian Dowling scoring a second-half try from a forward pass that would make even Wayne Barnes blush, there was no coming back as Barry Davies rounded off another sweeping move to send the Scarlets on their way to Welford Road.
Harlequins 5-6 Leinster, Twickenham Stoop, 2009
Eighty minutes, one try and two penalties. A herculean defensive effort from eventual champions Leinster. The most infamous game in recent memory? Without a doubt.
Had Nick Evans converted a last-gasp drop-goal, it could have been even worse, for this quarter final has been remembered for Quins and their little experiment with fake blood. You know how this story goes, Tom Williams fakes a blood injury to get Evans back onto the field to attempt a drop. ERC notice, and all hell breaks loose. Williams was banned for a year, later reduced to four months, while Quins boss Dean Richards was banned from coaching for three years. It was such a Grand Guignol moment that it shouldn't have been real. We wish it hadn't.
Saracens 19-10 Ospreys, Vicarage Road, 2008
Wales had won a surprise Grand Slam in 2008 and their spine came from the Ospreys, who were widely tipped to bring the Heineken Cup home for the first time. Standing in their way were Saracens, whose very presence in the last eight had brought a mixture of raised eyebrows and snorts of derision following a 30-3 humbling at the hands of the Ospreys in the Anglo-Welsh Cup semi-finals.
On the day it was men against boys. Or one man in particular against boys as Sarries flanker Richard Hill rolled back the years with a performance of grit, determination and barely concealed menace at the breakdown. Francisco Leonelli scored the try and Glen Jackson kicked the goals, but it was Hill, the best player in England's Rugby World Cup-winning back-row, who reigned supreme. "People see him limping and he has only got 85% range in that leg," head coach Alan Gaffney said. "He will never walk without a limp. That's not a problem, it is just the way his leg is. He was phenomenal today and we knew he would be."
Leicester 21-20 Stade Francais, Welford Road, 2007
The 2007 tournament has produced two entries on this list, but it was impossible to overlook Leicester's thrilling win over Stade Francais. Tom Varndell settled the tie with a 72nd minute try, converted by Andy Goode, as the Tigers kept alive their hopes of an unprecedented treble.
David Skrela's boot had threatened their tilt, the fly-half landing four penalties and a drop-goal to complement Juan Martin Hernandez's first-half try and cancel out an effort from Seru Rabeni. In the same year in which he would light up the Rugby World Cup in the colours of Argentina, Hernandez was almost unplayable in defeat. His try marked him as the most dangerous back on the field while his crunching, try-saving tackle on a flying Alesana Tuilagi was pure poetry.
Ulster 15-13 Toulouse, Ravenhill, 1998
With the English clubs absent from the tournament due to a dispute with the organisers, Ulster were left to fight off the finest that France had to offer in their march to Ireland's first European title. Stade Francais were dispatched in the semi-final and Colomiers in the final, but it was Ulster's one-two punch against Toulouse that remains an amazing achievement.
Having defeated the giants of the French landscape at home in the group stages David Humphreys' plucky men welcomed them back to Ravenhill for the quarter-finals. The only try of the game went to Toulouse and their talisman Fabien Pelous but the boot of Humphreys, with two drop-goals, and fullback Simon Mason again ensured a famous win.
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