Well, it was an exciting weekend of rugby action, with all 4 Irish provinces winning their Heineken Cup games. Unfortunately, though, only Ulster and Munster managed to advance to the quarter-finals.
Both Munster and Leinster succeeded in gertting their much-needed bonus point victories. Montpellier, though, put in a great performance against Toulon, beating them 23-3, and giving Montpellier the first runner-up spot in the quarter’s.
This left Munster and Leinster battling over the final place. Though both teams finished on 20 points, Munster managed to go through as they had accumulated more tries during the tournament (14 to Leinster’s 12).
Both teams were missing players, but the absence of Kearney, Fitzgerald and O’Driscoll, really hurt Leinster, especially during the double against Clermont. The 3 showed their worth by all scoring tries since their return, Kearney in both games.
It was a great performance by Leinster. They showed from the start, against Exeter, that they meant business, scoring close to the half-way mark, both Kearney and O’Driscoll getting in, along with Heaslip and D’Arcy.
It was much different to when the 2 teams first met (Leinster barely scraping by, 9-6). Leinster weren’t able to put Exeter away fully though, this time around, and the English team remained threatening. The match finished 29-20, to Leinster.
Munster took a while to get going against Racing Metro, waiting nearly half an hour before scoring their first try, even with Racing down a man for most of the game. Simon Zebo was in top form, scoring a hat-trick.
The match finished 29-6, with Munster scoring 2 further tries. It was enough to see them clear and they now face Harlequins in the quarter-finals. A big test as ‘Quins have been on a major role this season.
Ulster managed a close win over Castres, 9-8. This was actually their first-ever win in France! They failed to get a bonus point, though, which denied them a chance at a home quarter-final. They go away to face Saracens in the quarters.
Connacht finished their 2nd Heineken tournament with a win over Zebre, 25-20. Connacht had a good tournament overall, managing 3 wins in 6 games, a big improvement on last year, when they only managed to win 1 game.
The focus for the teams now moves to the quarter-finals which are as follows:
HARLEQUINS V MUNSTER:
‘Quins have achieved almost maximum points this season, while Munster scraped through to the quarters after a difficult start. Things can change though, when it comes to the Knock-out stages, as New Zealand have found in the World Cup
CLERMONT V MONTPELLIER
Clermont dominated their pool (which also featured Leinster) winning all their games. Montpellier had a tough pool, but played well and were only one point behind pool leaders, Toulon (23-22). Leinster were 8 points behind Clermont.
TOULON V LEICESTER
Toulon had a good season, winning 5 out of 6 games, but stumbled at the last, losing to Montpellier, but they still managed to top their pool. Leicester had the toughest pool, but still managed to scrape top place, despite losing and drawing matches.
SARACENS V ULSTER
Saracens were in Munster’s pool, their only loss coming against Munster.
With the quarter-finals not taking place until early April, the focus for the players now shifts to the Six Nations. This year’s tournament is full of intrigue, especially with the added bonus of a Lions tour at the end of it, for the Celtic and English players.
It’s a difficult one to call. Wales won the Grand Slam last year but have been pretty dire since then. England have had a mixed season, though it finished in style with a great win over New Zealand, their best ever.
France were poor in last year’s tournament but have improved since then. Scotland have reached their lowest ebb, and come into the tournament with a new (interim) coach. And then, of course, there’s Ireland.
Declan Kidney has picked his squad for the tournament, with the only major talking point being Jaimie Heaslip chosen as captain. Heaslip had done well during the November internationals, and there’s still doubts about O’Driscoll’s fitness.
Heaslip is a good pick in my view. He’s improved recently, and is approaching his top form. He’s also a more long-term option than O’Driscoll. His captaincy also improves his chances of leading the Lions in the summer.
The Irish squad in full is:
Forwards: Michael Bent, Rory Best,Tom Court, Sean Cronin, Declan Fitzpatrick, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip (c), Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, David Kilcoyne, Mike McCarthy, Sean O’Brien, Donncha O’Callaghan, Peter O’Mahony, Mike Ross, Donnacha Ryan, Lewis Stevenson, Richardt Strauss, Devin Toner
Backs: Isaac Boss,DarrenCave, Gordon D’Arcy, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Craig Gilroy, Robbie Henshaw, PaddyJackson, Rob Kearney, Ian Madigan, Paul Marshall, Dave McSharry, Conor Murray, Fergus McFadden, Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Eoin Reddan, Jonathan Sexton, Andrew Trimble, Simon Zebo
Not available due to injury: Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Luke Marshall, John Muldoon, Paul O’Connell, Dan Tuohy
Add Richard Strauss to the injury list. Apparently Stephen Ferris might be back for the latter stages of the tournament.
I would pick the following team for the first match against Wales (Sat, 2nd Feb @ 1.30)
Kearney, Zebo, O’Driscoll, Earls, Fitzgerald, Sexton, Murray, Heaslip, O’Mahony, O’Brien, McCarthy, Ryan, Ross, Best, Healy.