Well, they saved the best ‘til last! The last weekend of Heineken Cup rugby action was probably the most exciting of all the weekends, with the best results of all, for the Irish provinces.
Both Munster and Leinster booked a home quarter-final, Ulster, despite losing, still retained a quarter-final place (against Munster, as it happens), and Connacht finally registered their first win of the season, in a surprise upset.
Connacht faced off against Harlequins, and the result seemed a foregone conclusion. Connacht had been having a horrible season, not having won a single game in the Heineken, so far, and been very poor in the Rabo.
Harlequins, on the other hand, were having a great season, with very few defeats. Connacht seemed to have had their best chance of winning a match in the pool already gone, losing both their matches to Gloucester. But they dug deep, and pulled off a great win.
It wasn’t a vintage performance by Connacht, but they just wouldn’t give in, and finished the game, 9-8. As an added bonus, Harlequins were denied a place in the final 8, and miss out on a Heineken quarter-final.
Pool 6 turned out to be full of upsets, as Gloucester managed to get a win over Toulouse. This was a great performance by Gloucester, crushing the Heineken giant’s 34-24, denying them even a losing bonus point.
Ironically, Connacht’s win over Harlequins put Toulouse on top of the pool, meaning they go through to the quarter-finals.
Munster were looking for a home quarter-final, going into their match with Northampton. They needed maximum points to insure this. It didn’t look like they were going to do it, though, managing to concede 2 penalty tries, and ending the first half, 19-all.
They really turned it on in the 2nd half, scoring a further 5 tries, and finally winning the match, 51-36. After failing to advance to the quarter-finals, for the first time ever, last year, Munster become the top seeded team, been the only team in the Heineken to win all 6 pool matches (Leinster won 5 and drew 1).
In the other pool 1 game, the Scarlets beat Castres, 16-13, in a very close game. Scarlets lose out on a Heineken quarter-final, but qualify for an Amlin Challenge (Heineken B if you like) match.
Leinster were also looking for a home quarter-final. They faced off against Montpellier, and started off in classic form. They closed the first half with a stunning 20-0 lead. Rob Kearney scored a brilliant try, one of the best of the season.
They seemed to take the foot off in the 2nd half, though, only managing one further score. They still managed to finish the game, 25-3, which was enough for a home quarter-final, to be played at the Aviva.
Bath managed a win over Montpellier, beating them 23-18. It was only Bath’s second victory of the Heineken, and their 2nd over Montpellier. It’s been a very poor season for the former English club giant’s.
Ulster failed to get a home quarter-final, losing a very close game to Clermont, 19-15. Clermont top Pool 4, despite having the same number of points as Ulster (20), as they scored more tries during the season, than Ulster. Both teams advance to the quarters.
Ulster’s loss was a blow to Leicester as well, as they needed Ulster to beat Clermont for a chance of advancing to the quarter-finals. They managed to beat Aironi (who are the only that have no points) comfortably, 33-8.
Edinburgh became the first Scottish side to advance to the Heineken quarter-finals in 8 years (the last time they qualified) after topping their pool, with a win against London Irish, 34-11. Edinburgh are actually coached by former Ireland scrum-half, Michael Bradley.
Cardiff were the other team from pool 2 to qualify, after beating Racing Metro, 36-30. Cardiff failed to get the 4-try bonus point, though, so Edinburgh top their pool.
Saracens managed to top their pool, with a win over Treviso, 26-20. Peter Stringer played a lead roll in getting Saracens their win. Saracens are the only English side to advance to the Heineken quarter-finals this year.
Biarritz managed to crush Ospreys, 36-5, in the other Pool 5 game. Ospreys have had a poor season, they’ve seen quite a few of their star player’s leave to play in France. Tommy Bowe is one of their only star’s still remaining. Biarritz’s great win fail to see them qualify, unfortunately.
HEINEKEN CUP QUARTER FINALS
Munster v Ulster: I have to give this one to Munster. Ulster have had a great season, but I feel that Munster have reclaimed their dominant form and be very difficult to beat. THE BOOKIES ODDS ARE: ULSTER 5/2 – MUNSTER 3/10
Edinburgh v Toulouse: It’s Edinburgh’s first time in the quarters in 8 year’s. Toulouse have won the Heineken 4 times. The result seems little in doubt, but Edinburgh are on a roll, and Toulouse were upset by Gloucester. Probably Toulouse, I have to say, but Edinburgh should keep them close. EDINBURGH 9/4 – TOULOUSE 1/3
Munster v Toulouse would be quite a Heineken semi-final!
Leinster (1/7) v Cardiff (9/2): This should be pretty close. The Ireland v Wales game in the 6 Nations will give it an added interest. I’d say Leinster might just do it.
Saracens (8/11) v Clermont (11/10): Another even game. Could be anybody’s. I’m up for Saracens, with the Peter Stringer connection.
If Leinster advance, I’d rather see them against Saracens than Clermont, anyway. The French sides can be pretty unbeatable in Heineken semi-finals.