Europe's finest continue to shine
November 21, 2011
Munster's Ronan O'Gara landed yet another last-gasp drop goal to seal victory against Castres © Getty Images
You have to feel sorry for the likes of the Premiership, PRO12 and Top 14 when the Heineken Cup serves up quality and drama at every turn.
The battle for Europe's top club prize rarely fails to deliver in terms of thrilling entertainment and not content with lighting the blue touch paper in Round 1 with a host of pulsating clashes, the tournament offered a further reminder this weekend that it is a domestic tournament without parallel.
The secret of its success lies in the respect that the teams have for the competition and fans' high regard for its flavour with both fuelled by a rich history of top class rugby and unrivalled out-of-your-seat action. The result is a tournament the envy of the rugby world and while it will now make way for its domestic cousins, rest assured an early Christmas present or two awaits next month when it returns.
Once again it was Munster and fly-half Ronan O'Gara who took on a starring role in the latest cross-border clashes with the veteran playmaker landing a last-gasp drop goal - just as he did against Northampton last time out - to seal a dramatic 27-24 over Top 14 high-flyers Castres. But O'Gara's influence extends far beyond final flourishes with the No.10 charging down an attempted clearance in the lead up to Will Chambers' crucial try. With two wins from two, Munster look set to for yet another quarter-final appearance but they are still playing catch-up in Pool 1 with the Scarlets currently setting the pace.
The Llanelli-based region laid down another impressive marker against Northampton at Franklin's Gardens where an all-action display ensured a 28-23 against a Saints side that looked drained in the wake of their defeat to Munster the week before. The game was all but over by half-time thanks to tries from Liam Williams, Aaron Shingler and Matt Gilbert with Rhys Priestland, making his first appearance since lighting up the World Cup stage for Wales, grabbing the bonus point score with Northampton's hopes of repeating last season's heroics now hanging by a thread.
There was dose of controversy in the Pool 5 clash in Treviso where the Ospreys snatched a share of the spoils with a last-minute penalty from rising star Matthew Morgan the last act in a 27-27 draw. But it could have been so much better for the hosts, who are holding their own in the PRO12, having handed their rivals a lifeline with a gift of a try for the Ospreys' Ryan Jones. The visitors' failure to add to their opening victory allowed Biarritz to reclaim some ground with an impressive showing against Saracens with an outstanding try from speedster Taku Ngwenya the undoubted highlight in a 15-10 win. But Saracens' late rally to claim a losing bonus point is sure to serve them well as the tournament unfolds.
Edinburgh conjured the biggest comeback in Heineken Cup history on their way to a thrilling 48-47 triumph over Racing Metro in an almost unbelievable encounter at Murrayfield. Trailing 44-20 midway through the second half, the hosts dug deep to conjure a remarkable turnaround with Tim Visser's 76th minute try - the 11th in the game - bringing his side within range before Greg Laidlaw landed the match-winning kick. That victory leaves them in control of Pool 2 but Cardiff Blues are hot on their heels having notched their second successive win with a 24-18 success at home to London Irish whose hopes took a body blow with a red card for centre Steve Shingler following a tip tackle.
Glasgow failed to back up their dramatic opening win against Bath as they went down to defending champions Leinster. No.8 Jamie Heaslip claimed the man of the match honour with an influential display but centre Eoin O'Malley also caught the eye with two tries in his side's 38-13 win. Bath remain in touch thanks to their narrow 16-13 win against Montpellier. World Cup winning fly-half Stephen Donald was a key figure in his first start at The Rec but was pushed all the way by his Montpellier counterpart Francois Trinh-Duc.
Another close battle is shaping up in Pool 6 where Toulouse and Harlequins remain unbeaten. The French giants spoiled the occasion of Connacht's first home tie in the competition by handing their Irish rivals a lesson on their way to a 36-10 victory. Fly-half Lionel Beauxis was the star of the show for the four-time champions and kept his side on course for a mouth-watering double header against Quins next month. The Premiership leaders extended their winning start to the season with their 12th straight victory - a 28-9 win against Gloucester - that came courtesy of a determined defensive effort and tries from Mike Brown, Tom Hopper and Nick Easter.
Leicester Tigers also remain unbeaten in Europe thanks to a hard-fought 20-9 victory over Ulster at Welford Road that leaves them top of Pool 4. Matt Smith's second-half try proved to be the difference between the two sides in a game of few chances but the Tigers will need to raise their game ahead of back-to-back clashes with Clermont Auvergne. The star-studded French side bounced back from their opening loss to Ulster to run eight tries past Italian minnows Aironi in a painfully one-sided 54-3 victory.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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