European masters make their move
April 11, 2010
Leinster's Jamie Heaslip celebrates scoring for the Irish province while Ospreys' Marty Holah reflects on defeat to Biarritz © Getty Images
Toulouse 42 - 16 Stade FranÃ§ais Munster 33 - 19 Northampton Saints Biarritz 29 - 28 Ospreys Leinster 29 - 28 Clermont Auvergne
Dan Biggar Jamie Heaslip Doug Howlett Brock James Ryan Jones Julien Malzieu Taku Ngwenya Ronan O'Gara Damien Traille
Saturday is traditionally moving day in the golfing world - the time when competitors position themselves for the final round push. And while lefty Phil Mickelson was carving up the beautiful surrounds of the Augusta National golf course at the year's first major, past masters Munster made their move with a vintage display in their Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Northampton.
The Irish province, twice champions in Europe's premier club competition, produced a classy display to beat Northampton 33-19 at a rocking Thomond Park , thus ending English hopes in this season's title chase and setting up a semi-final showdown with French side Biarritz. The Basques booked their place in the final four with a nail-biting 29-28 victory over Ospreys in San Sebastian and they will be joined in the semi-finals by Top 14 colleagues Toulouse, who curtailed Stade Francais' challenge in emphatic style with a thumping 42-16 win on Sunday. Victory brought with it the exciting prospect of a rematch with defending champions Leinster, who set the tone for an outstanding weekend of European action with a dramatic 29-28 win over Clermont Auvergne in Dublin on Friday night.
The Heineken Cup rarely fails to deliver in terms of excitement and tension but the added knock-out element that came with the quarter-finals lifted the world's greatest club competition to a whole new level that left fans and commentators once again struggling for suitable superlatives to reflect the brilliance served up by all the combatants.
Leinster's meeting with Clermont at the RDS had the makings of a classic and the contest did not disappoint, with both sides playing their part in a thrilling rollercoaster of ride. Clermont came out fighting and took control of the game thanks to a try from winger Julien Malzieu and the boot of fly-half Brock James but Leinster showed why they are European champions by weathering that early storm before re-asserting their authority, with No.8 Jamie Heaslip a the heart of their revival. The rampaging back-row forward crossed for two tries and fly-half Jonathan Sexton ensured the game swung back in the home side's favour.
But remember, this is the Heineken Cup. Back came Clermont, so often so easy on the eye, with Malzieu completing a superb hat-trick with two tries after the break that put Les Jaunards on course for a stunning win. As with all great dramas, there was a further twist to come with Sexton wrestling the lead back for Leinster with two late penalties. There was still time for the industrious Clermont pack to engineer to drop goal opportunities for James to win the game but the Australian, widely regarded as one of the finest exponents of putting boot to ball, failed to close the game out. You could perhaps excuse one missed opportunity but two inevitably brings with it the allegation that the player choked in the face of the pressure of the occasion - something all too familiar to Clermont who have lost countless major finals. This is a game they should have won and in the end Leinster escaped with their European title defence intact. The player himself, who also missed several costly penalties, summed up his game with refreshing honesty: "I was rubbish."
If you were left in any doubt as to the kind of enthralling melodrama that this competition can produce, you only had to wait a few hours for Biarritz and Ospreys to issue a reminder with arguably the pick of the quarter-final clashes. The Estadio Anoeta in northern Spain played host to another pulsating encounter - entertaining from start to finish and peppered with astonishing line breaks and arguably one of the greatest tries the tournament has ever seen in its illustrious 15-year history.
Like Clermont, Ospreys were guilty of letting this one get away from them despite Biarritz taking control of the contest early on with a Damien Traille drop goal and a sensational 80-metre try from speedster Takudzwa Ngwenya, who added the scalp of wing wizard Shane Williams to that of Springboks flyer Bryan Habana. Back came Ospreys with a try from captain Ryan Jones and another through fullback Lee Byrne after a scintillating passing move. Fly-half Dan Biggar edged the Ospreys ahead shortly after the break only to see Iain Balshaw put the hosts back in front soon after. But the Welsh region rallied once more, with Nikki Walker touching down for a late try to ignite hope of a late turnaround.
Controversy surrounded the closing stages with the Ospreys seemingly robbed of a last-minute penalty when Irish referee George Clancy ruled that Biarritz scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili had knocked on accidently. The Ospreys regained possession but Biggar was wide of the mark with his last-gasp drop goal attempt to spark delight amongst the 'home' crowd. Understandably heartbroken, the Ospreys were disconsolate after such a battling display with centre James Hook a stand out performer.
As with the opening game, the tendency was to dwell on the conclusion of the game but like the RDS clash the game disappeared with the form of the principle kicker with Biggar missing two penalties, two drop-goals and a conversion.
The focus then switched to Thomond Park and Munster's latest meeting with Northampton. The two sides had met twice already in the competition during the pool stages and after one win apiece this latest clash billed as a decider between the undisputed kings of the competition and the pretenders to their throne - were we to witness a changing of the guard? In the end it was not to be with Munster's unrivalled experience when it comes to such occasions seeing them home against a valiant Saints side and in doing so they answered those who dared to suggest the province was on the wane.
Munster's full-throttle opening was rewarded with tries from fullback Paul Warwick and winger Doug Howlett but the boot of fly-half Stephen Myler and a try from centre Jon Clarke gave Northampton a half-time lead and sparked concern amongst the Limerick faithful. But they needn't have worried with the likes of the irrepressible Ronan O'Gara in their ranks. Howlett and centre Jean de Villiers may have crossed the whitewash but it was the fired up fly-half, spurred on by the oft-repeated suggestion he has seen his better days, who served as the arrow head for a resurgent home side and along with the industry of halfback partner and man of the match Tom O'Leary saw the perennial title challengers progress to their ninth Heineken Cup semi-final.
Defeat for Northampton saw English hopes fade for another year with their lack of big match experience proving their downfall. They travelled to Thomond Park full of hope, confident that they had the set-piece and personnel to match their Irish rivals and it was evident from their demeanour that Munster's fortress held no fear for them. That promise should serve them well as they resume their quest for Premiership glory but will be of little consolation to them now. Munster's victory underlined their class and their ability to deliver when it matters most but if they are to keep their Euro dream alive they will have to do it the hard way - on the road as the next stop is Biarritz.
Toulouse registered the biggest win of the quarter-finals with a clinical dismantling of Stade at a packed out Stade Municipal - a rugby masterclass with the excellent Yannick Jauzion at its heart. Playing to keep their season and their Heineken Cup qualification alive having fallen by the wayside in France's top flight, Stade through everything they had at their fierce rivals in the first half. The contest had the feel of an arm wrestle and Stade took control with a well-worked try from Rodrigo Roncero but Toulouse weathered the storm and struck crucially just before the break with the influential Jauzion forcing his way over for a try. That proved to be the pivotal score, with the lead and more importantly the momentum shifting significantly in Toulouse's favour.
Stade battled bravely in the second period but could only hold the black tide for so long. The boot of David Skrela turned the screw while the breath-taking handling and expansive approach of his side ensured the scintillating nature of this weekend's rugby continued through to the final whistle. In this kind of form it will take a very good side to prevent the three-time winners capturing another Heineken Cup crown but in Leinster they face that very thing. The fixture offers a repeat of their epic quarter-final clash in 2005, won by a Brian O'Driscoll inspired Leinster - time will tell if they can conjure another upset.
And so the semi-final picture is complete. The final four has a Franco-Irish flavour that perhaps best sums up the current state of play in the northern hemisphere, and the countdown is on to the first weekend in May when Europe's finest will do battle for a place in the Stade de France season finale. Such was the standard of rugby on display across the board this past weekend that there is no clear favourite, with home country advantage for the French sides set to be the key factor, but with multiple champions in the mix and all with final experience we are in for another treat.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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