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Heineken Cup – Munster Brilliance Keeps Irish Interest Alive

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Well, that was emotional. Be it the dream of another fairytale for Brian O’Driscoll, the anger and passion that followed Jared Payne’s red card, or the sheer and utter dissection Munster undertook, that was yet another Heineken Cup knock out round that simply had it all. It was yet another reason why the dissolving of this competition next year is little short of a travesty, though at least the new tournament looks set to more closely resemble this one than it could have.

Leinster post-Schmidt have been significantly below par thus far. Not that anyone can have much grievance with this; they lost two of the world’s finest back line players in Isa Nacewa and Jonathan Sexton and in Joe Schmidt they lost a lot of precision and clarity. Still though, there were definitely better fashions in which they could have fallen to Toulon.

The telling moment was as obvious as they come, when Leinster brought play to within a score, secured a line out in the Toulon 22, and somehow let that turn into a try for the Galacticos. It just couldn’t have been any further from the precision and triumph this team has rode on for the last five years. There was even a second moment to salvage the line out after the initial fumble but as it happened it was a lost cause. Even the sniff of a late comeback, with Toulon down to 14, barely lasted a few minutes.

All that being said however, Toulon deserve credit. Even with the hammer blow of losing Jonny Wilkinson they were absolutely electric, Matthieu Basteraud and Danie Rossouw deserving of the highest praise. Munster would surely have preferred the spin up the road in three weeks to face Leinster in the semi final, but now they travel to the favourites and a mammoth, and mouth watering for the spectators, task awaits.
Toulon 29 – 14 Leinster

Glory glory Munster was the mantra after their lunchtime annihilation of Toulouse in Thomond Park. In the exact opposite style to their demolition of Harlequins last year, Munster were running rampant in a free flowing style that even saw Paul O’Connell cross the line for a rare try. Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Conor Murray and more were all up to a huge standard (dare I say akin to Leinster of recent years) and CJ Stander turned out to be the unlikely standout having replaced Peter O’Mahony well ahead of schedule through injury. He was on fire, and against the mercenaries in the semi his bench impact could be crucial, assuming a recovery to O’Mahony.

Toulouse showed up too, let’s not forget that. Come the final whistle the scoreline suggested a typical French throw on the towel job, but at the break it was still all up in the air as Munster still hadn’t quite managed to turn enough chances into scores. This was as vintage from Munster in intensity as we have seen in a long time, one to sit alongside the Miracle Match, the All Blacks and more as one of the great days in this legendary team’s history. Not many gave Munster strong chance 6 months ago, myself included, but nobody stands a better chance this side of France now than they do.
Munster 47 – 23 Toulouse

Jerome Garces deserves a match ban. It doesnt happen, but it should. He single handedly took the balance out of what could have been a famous night for Ulster rugby with the worst reffing decision since Jonathan Kaplan in Cardiff 2010. Jared Payne was reckless, a penalty was a given. The harsh call was a yellow. The incident on a whole was a million miles from a red. Whatever about their Herculean performance with 14, the Ulster team deserve immense credit for not losing their cool as it became obvious that Garces was rooting for anyone but the home side.

But that aside, what a display they put on. Saracens were more than up for it, and if Owen Farrell had better accuracy on the day they would have been out of sight, but Ulster took the lead twice, and even at eight points down in the final quarter they still would not give up the ghost. Paddy Jackson took over kicking duties for the injured Ruan Pienaar with balls of steel, and two more penalties brought them within a kick to win. We can wax lyrical about the near forty phases at the death and how many penalties, notably for Saracens being offside, Ulster should have earned. But Garces saw fit to blow it up on a penalty for the visitors and that was that, presumably as Garces left the pitch under PSNI guard.

Tommy Bowe and Johan Muller have reflected since the game that this was maybe Ulster’s best and last chance for a while at the main prize, given the exodus they will suffer next year, and whilst that remains to be seen, they certainly deserved more than this controversial and deflating finish to a certain “Golden Generation” for the province. With Marshall (x2), Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson et al however they are certainly not down and out, and like Leinster have a coveted Rabo title to play for. Once Jerome Garces’ season is done for now that is.
Ulster 15 – 17 Saracens

Image courtesy of theguardian.com

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  1. April 11th, 2014

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