English sides step up in race for quarter-finals
January 21, 2007
That three English teams might make the final eight was reasonably foreseeable before the final weekend of pool matches. That two of them would be at home was not. Huw Richards reports
As is the way of the Heineken, both Leicester and Wasps will be at home because they won away. The Tigers produced one of the great Heineken performances in Limerick, ending holders Munster's 26-match European winning run at Thomond Park with a 13-6 victory in foul conditions.
Tigers dominated in the set piece, with Julian White wreaking havoc in the scrummage, and denied Ronan O'Gara the time and space to run the game as he had in Munster's opening round victory at Welford Road.
A try in each half, with Geordan Murphy crossing before half-time after a lethal surging break from Martin Castrogiovanni and Ollie Smith scoring in the second half, brought them victory and a home tie with Stade Francais.
Leicester's success was bad news for Ospreys, who briefly held the second runners-up spot after a 17-8 victory at Sale. They can blame last week's injury-time equalising penalty by Stade - and perhaps compatriots Dragons, who pathetically lost last season's playoff against Overmach Parma, allowing pool six to be so unbalanced that the runner-up was almost bound to qualify - for falling just short.
It will be no compensation to them that because all three Welsh teams won, Cardiff beating Bourgoin 30-27 at the Arms Park, they completed the pool stages with the best overall success rate of any nation, just under 70 per cent - over double last year's rate and the first time in Heineken history that Wales has had the best record overall.
Wasps claimed their home tie against Leinster with a 16-13 win at Castres,ending their hosts' ambitions, with Tom Voyce scoring their try. They also have to thank Gloucester, who with only pride to play for in their pool beat the Irishmen 19-13 at Kingsholm and ended their hopes of a home quarter-final.
Brian O'Driscoll managed both a try and a yellow card on a rare weekend when all three Irish teams lost - Ulster going down 28-13 to Toulouse in a ugly contest whose best feature was two tries by Clement Poitrenaud.
Toulouse's Irishman Trevor Brennan had a particularly eventful afternoon against his northern compatriots, clashing with Ulster fans while warming up on the touchline then earning a yellow card, together with his victim, after punching Justin Harrison.
Stade Francais duly secured their quarter-final place with a 47-6 win at home to hapless Calvisano, whitewashed for a fourth consecutive Heineken season. Julien Arias rounded off the seven-try victory with two scores in the final few minutes. Treviso, so promising a couple of years ago, completed a second consecutive winless campaign when they went down 45-25 at Perpignan.
Overmach Parma, though, salvaged something for Italy at the very last, recording the first Italian victory in two years when they beat Borders 45-37 in a match that saw three penalty tries awarded, two of them to Parma.
Llanelli briefly took over top seeding by making something of a meal of beating London Irish 20-16 at Stradey. They looked well in charge when tries by Dwayne Peel and Dafydd James, who extended his all-time Heineken scoring record with an 80 yard interception from a pass by Shane Geraghty, gave them a 17-6 lead at half-time.
Irish, though roared back after the break, with Geraghty scoring a try, and had cut the Scarlets lead to a single point before a Steve Jones penalty sealed their 100 per cent pool stage record, the first ever by a Welsh team.
How much good such pool stage performances do is doubtful - four teams have managed it since the six-match pool stage was introduced in 1997-8 and none have gone on to win the trophy. Three have indeed gone out in the quarter-final, and Llanelli will hardly feel safe from such a fate given that their visitors in the next round will be Munster.
Biarritz, who sealed the top seeding that has seemed likely since the draw was made by winning 17-8 at Northampton, will however feel confident since their quarter-final visitors, probably in San Sebastian, will be ...Northampton.
The French champions completed the double over their hosts and future visitors in some comfort - their superiority evident in the way they not only held Saints at bay but scored themselves through a Dimitri Yachvili drop-goal and should also have had a try, when reduced for seven minutes to 13 men when David Couzinet followed Sereli Bobo into the sin-bin.
Bobo was more constructively engaged in the 64th minute when he burst through unstoppably for Biarritz's second try.
Centre Andrea Masi had claimed the first ten minutes earlier. Recording the first-ever French clean sweep, Biarritz fell only a single bonus-point short of becoming the first team to claim a maximum 30 points in a pool stage.
Biarritz v Northampton
To be played on the weekend of 30/31 March, 1 April.