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Ulster’s Heineken Cup Dream Ends Whilst Mighty Munster Return

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It really is a funny old competition the Heineken Cup. A few months back, Ulster and Harlequins were shoe ins as the top four teams in the tournament, Ulster unbeaten, Quins as good as. Yet here we are with the Quarter Finals played, both teams knocked out in comprehensive losses. In the meantime Leinster showed the Heineken Cup what it is missing in their stunning win over Wasps, in what certainly ranks as one of the best games of the weekend from a spectators perspective.

For Ulster it will be a bitter pill to swallow indeed. They travelled to their Quarter Final bout with Saracens when they would have known a while now that they should have been welcoming their opponents to Ravenhill. Their form by the end of the pool stages let them down even more than their fractured performance on Saturday did. That being said, boy did it all go wrong for them on the pitch. Best completely misfired all day, after having played himself into the Lions in the Six Nations. Players like Gilroy and Trimble got the ball in hand but couldn’t create anything and Pienaar had one of his worse days in the jersey. In the pantheon of shining lights there was at least Ian Henderson and academy talent Olding who both combined for the Ulster try at the death. Tommy Bowe also looked fit and fresh ahead of what is now a huge Rabo weekend. Saracens were the better team however, their defence in particular was immense as even when Ulster managed to mount a threat, Saracens rarely looked phased. The sooner however, that Chris Ashton drops a ball whilst going for his pathetic, childish and downright vulgar “swan dive”, the better. It is the epitome of the old English rugby arrogance and ignorance and is just not a part of modern English rugby’s ethos. Saracens 27 – 16 Ulster

Leinster had a much better time of it on Friday and like Munster in 2011 they showed that the Amlin is anything but the “lesser” competition, providing thrills and excitement galore. Joe Schmidt, whilst talking to Newstalk’s Dave McIntyre ahead of the game alluded to the try scoring capabilities of Wasps’ strike runners such as Wade and waxed lyrical that a try fest leaning to the right side would be a good match. As it happened, the first few minutes looked worryingly as if they would go against his wishes, Wasps running in a try through Wade from absolutely nowhere. From there, eight more would follow. Yup, nine tries in total. Thankfully, five of them came from Leinster and with the far more assured boot of Madigan versus his opposite number Robinson, Leinster found themselves out of sight with plenty of time left in the game. Tries came all over the pitch, with Rob Kearney, Mike Ross, Nacewa, Madigan and D’Arcy all crossing, and Madigan kicked penalties all night. Wasps to their credit didn’t ever really look out of the running though, but something that has to be noted is just how unfortunate they were to receive such a thumping. The crucial element in Leinster’s victory was not the extra try, rather the three extra conversions as Madigan kicked four to Robinson’s one. Leinster did deserve the win through their overall performance and hunger, but with a more accurate fly half and with Leinster’s defence looking a little off, Wasps could have caused them serious trouble. This is something Leinster will need to address in the Rabo ahead of their Semi Final meeting with Biarritz, a formidable opponent and lethal against unprepared defences. Wasps 28 – 48 Leinster

Highlight of the weekend surprisingly goes to one of the only try-less games of the knock outs. After a humiliation to Glasgow last week, not many gave Munster much hope against a Harlequins outfit who are tearing teams to shreds this season. There was plenty to be optimistic about though in the player availability: O’Connell back in the fold, Zebo speeding back to fitness, heavyweights O’Mahony and Ryan lining out. But as it turned out, once again the killer boot of Ronan O’Gara proved the deciding factor, reaping the benefits of a rabid forward pack. In the first half I for one was screaming for Keatley’s introduction to inject some attacking flair to Munster’s game but how wrong I turned out to be. After a first half in which Munster stayed in touching distance but Quins won the officials, the crowd and the set piece, Penney clearly had some bottled lightning to lash on the team in the changing room. The Munster 15 that emerged on the pitch for the second forty appeared to have finally realised what was at stake and within ninety seconds O’Gara was levelling the score. Further heavy lifting from the pack and clinical as you like kicks from ROG put Munster safely ahead and a spirited fight back from Quins stopping dead through nervous hands meant Munster held on for the win and a first Semi Final since 2010. They now look so much more like the Munster of old, in spirit more than style of play, and the look of absolute elation on O’Connell’s face at the final whistle says it all about how unhappy these men are that they haven’t been in this position for three years, and though O’Connell alluded to Clermont being happier to see Munster travelling to them than Quins, you now once again can never write Munster off in the business end of the Heineken Cup. Harlequins 12 – 18 Munster

In a side note of national team news, Shawn Edwards is now the latest name in the hat for next Irish coach. It would be fantastic, but to my knowledge he too once more is still working out a contract term, maybe we should really be looking at the realistic candidates for the position? You know, the ones the IRFU can afford?

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