Leinster Bow Out At The Hands Of Electric Munster

Heinekin-CupSlim but doable, points and tries left behind, what could have been. All of these thoughts now race through the minds of Leinster fans, but were it not for a fantastic display from Munster how things could have been the opposite way around. All in all it’s done now, Leinster have slipped into the Amlin Challenge Cup where they are sure to cause havoc and Munster have progressed as second runners up. It was a thrilling weekend of rugby and there’s a lot to discuss!

First up on Friday was Connacht welcoming Zebre to the Sportsground and what a strange game it was. One would have thought Connacht would have hit this one all guns blazing seeking out an emphatic win to end their Heineken Cup but as it played out neither team showed up in any great way and come the end of the game Connacht were very nearly staring down an unlikely loss. Dan Parks did some massive work to tick the scoreboard over and make amends for a dodgy last couple of performances, but Connacht were their own worst enemy at times, letting Zebre into the game when really the Italians had no ability to make themselves competitive. Still a win is what they got and they show a scorecard of three from six, two better than last year. There’s a way to go but with the news that Fionn Carr is returning to them next season and whatever other signings they may gain, coupled with a new coach, there’s no denying Connacht will be an exciting team next season, hopefully they will have a European platform on which to show it. Connacht 25 – 20 Zebre

Next Ulster stood up to the French challenge of Castres, looking for their first win on French soil. Ulster were also playing for a home quarter final and after making hard work of a weak Glasgow side the weekend before, they really could have fared better than they did. All the Ulstermen could muster up on the day was 9 points and whilst this was enough to beat Castres’ sole try, it was a long way from the romp they had against the same opposition at the start of this competition. Admittedly Ulster have lost players to injury who were instrumental in Ravenhill back then but still, that championship skill and ability I keep harking back to was not present in France and if Ulster are to pass through the knock outs unscathed they will have to muster it up. Players like Pienaar, Best and, hopefully, Muller need to stand up and remind the team what it is they are playing for. They now stand as the main hope of a nation, not just Ulster, of achieving Heineken Cup glory for 2013. With Kidney’s squad containing a wealth of Ulster players too there are many playing for position and a chance at International duty. It is time for Ulster to stand up and be recognised for the team they have been, and can be, and that is the most in-form and consistent province at the minute and therefore the trendsetters of Irish rugby. Castres 8 – Ulster 9

Part one of the nerve shredders came on Saturday evening with Leinster taking on Exeter in Devon. Infamous for their ability to withhold bonus points at home, the Chiefs were expected to put up one hell of a fight, and didn’t disappoint. Both of Leinster’s first two tries were responded to with scores of their own from Exeter, and I should add that they were extremely well executed and exploited weaknesses in the Irish side that many teams could not find. At half time the home side led 17 – 12 and things were looking anxious. It was then that Leinster looked as though they would turn the screw, ten minutes early in the second half bringing tries from O’Driscoll and Heaslip for the bonus point. But then, nothing. Not a blessed peep. Just as they had done against Scarlets, Leinster got the four in the bag and then never even looked like scoring another for the rest of the game. Then Exeter, through an unconverted try and a penalty, found themselves within a score and for all the world it looked as though Leinster could lose the game even after securing the bonus point. Not to take away from the champions, it was a fine performance against tough opposition, but when the scores are there and not scored through no fault but their own fans grow tired. Leinster are not a team in despair, or transition, or any of the exaggerated clichés we threw around about Munster two years ago. But something is wrong, whether it’s down to the old guard keeping young blood out of matches too much, the over exhaustion of said old guard or a combination of the two, Leinster’s problems at least look solvable on paper which is a start. They now move into the Amlin to face Wasps and hopefully they will treat the second tier with the respect it deserves and salvage their season in it. Exeter Chiefs 20 – 29 Leinster

The weekend then wrapped up with the game watched through the fingers of Leinster fans nationwide. Racing were sending a second string team, but Munster weren’t exactly a try scoring machine up to this point in the season, most noticeably the week before against the dogged Edinburgh. Yet, as fate would have it, O’Gara’s ban meant Munster starting the far more dynamic Ian Keatley who could inject the pace required to bag tries. And he, along with all the rest of the 15, did just that in a game where three tries were in place before half time, and come the end Munster had five scored including a hat trick for young flyer Simon Zebo. Their cause was helped of course by Wayne Barnes showing Racing flanker Battut early in the game and against fourteen Munster were able to split the Frenchmen open. Their performance wasn’t without its flaws – particularly with the man advantage they probably should have notched up even more – but they definitely looked better than they have in the last few weeks and again there is that argument for the improvement that Keatley brings with him. They look to be in good shape at the minute and hopefully Penney will see the merit in starting Keatley for their daunting trip to the Stoop to face Harlequins in the Quarter Final. If any team was ever to break the Hoodoo of the runners up, it would surely be Munster. Munster 29 – 6 Racing Metro 92

So after some exhilarating Rounds the Heineken Cup now stands as seen in the table below:

QF1 – Harlequins VS Munster, Twickenham Stoop

QF2 – Clermont VS Montpellier, Stade Marcel Michelin

QF3 – Toulon VS Leicester Tigers, Stade Mayol

QF4 – Saracens VS Ulster, Wembley Stadium/Twickenham

All venues are of course assumed at present, with Saracens needing a bigger ground such as Twickenham or Wembley to comply with competition rules.

For now though, looking back at the competition so far, some highlights so far that cannot be missed are Connacht’s emphatic win over Biarritz (watch here), Ulster’s trouncing of Northampton on the road, particularly the last gasp bonus point (watch here), but the most honourable mention goes to Peter Horne for his incredible solo effort which in turn won the match for Glasgow and knocked Northampton out of Europe. Hair raising stuff. Must watch stuff!

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