LEINSTER, ULSTER AND MUNSTER QUALIFY FOR HEINEKEN QUARTERS!

*ULSTER AND MUNSTER ACHIEVE HOME QUARTER-FINALS
*LEINSTER TO FACE TOULON IN QUARTERS
*CONNACHT FALL AT FINAL HURDLE
*STRAUSS BACK FOR LEINSTER
 
Well, it was almost a perfect weekend for Irish rugby: Leinster, Ulster and Munster have all qualified for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, with Ulster and Munster playing their games at home! Unfortunately, it was a bridge too far for Connacht but they’ve had a great campaign overall.
 
First, on Friday Leinster defeated Ospreys, at the RDS, in a crushing 36-3 win. Leinster were helped somewhat by the ref and Ospreys ill discipline: the ref awarded 2 penalty tries and Ospreys had to play with 14 men for over an hour after 1 of their players was red-carded.
 
It took Leinster quite a while to get into the match, they really only got going after Ospreys Ian Evans was sent off for stamping on Mike McCarthy (Evans is a Welsh international, and Lion, and there is talk that he might be suspended from playing in the 6 Nations) 20 minutes into the game.
 
Leinster took full advantage of their extra man, eventually scoring 3 tries, to add to the 2 penalty tries, which gave them the 4-try bonus point. Ospreys were courageous in their defence but their disadvantage in numbers eventually got the better of them.
 
Leinster finish top of their pool, with 22 points. This wasn’t enough to qualify for a home quarter-final, though, so they end up having to travel to France where they will face last year’s champions, Toulon. Leinster were also boosted by the return of Richard Strauss, who has recovered from heart surgery.
 
Strauss’s recovery is also a boost for Ireland in the 6 Nations. Incidentally, Richard Strauss (originally from South Africa but qualified to play for Ireland under the residency rule) has a namesake who was a German composer who wrote the music used at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Also Sprach Zarathustra!
 
Ulster capped off a terrific campaign, with a win away to Leicester, 22-19! This victory means that Ulster finish the pool stages with 6 wins from 6 matches, the only team to have an unbeaten record, and it also means that Ulster finish as top ranked seeds, with 26 points.
 
Ulster’s top ranking means that they face 8th ranked Saracens, in the quarter-final, at Ravenhill. It was a great win for Ulster away. Leicester haven’t conceded a home defeat since 2007! It was a close game, Ulster only leading by 3 points towards the end. Leicester had a scrum called close to Ulster’s line but Ulster kept them out and victory was achieved!  
 
Munster got the last of the home quarter-final spots, conquering Edinburgh, 38-6. They also, like Leinster, scored 5 tries (though none were penalty tries), securing another bonus point. This victory gave them 23 points, placing them 4th in the qualifier and giving them the last of the home quarter-finals.
 
Munster got the better of a poor Edinburgh, running roughshod over the Scottish team. They go on to face Toulouse (ranked 5th. Toulouse also have 23 points but scored less tries throughout the competition than Munster) at Thomond Park. Maybe the Connacht lads can give Munster a few pointers on how to beat the French giants!
 
Connacht were soundly thrashed by Saracens, 64-6. It was always going to be a tough ask for Connacht, facing 1 of the top English club sides, in their own back yard. Still, Connacht shouldn’t let the loss deter them. They still had their best ever season, capped by that tremendous win over Toulouse (few teams have beaten the 4 time champions).
 
Saracens’ victory gives them the position of being the runner-up side with the most points, which means they qualify for the quarter-finals where they will face Ulster. The final quarter-final will take place between Clermont and Leicester. 4 terrific matches to look forward to!
 
Ulster v Saracens Clermont v Leicester Toulon v Leinster Munster v Toulouse 
 
The Heineken Cup has already been a terrific competition this year and were not even at the most exciting part. The Irish provinces have done very well, with Leinster making a welcome return to the quarter-final stages after failing to reach that far last year (though they did qualify for, and go on to win, the Amlin trophy!).
 
The Irish provinces are doing very well at the moment. With the quarter-finals not due to be played until April, the focus turns to the 6 Nations. Hopefully, the players can play as well when they’re united together for Ireland.
 
To return to the Heineken for a moment, there have been no breakthroughs in the on-going drama relating to the future of the tournament. Rugby’s governing body has come out and stated that there will be no new European rugby competition.
 
The English clubs are holding steadfastly to their proposed boycott and the Welsh clubs seem to be following suit (there is a civil war going on between the Welsh clubs and the Welsh Rugby Union at the moment). 
 
What seems clear to me is that the Heineken Cup will be a poorer tournament without the English and/or Welsh clubs involvement and, on the other side, any tournament that doesn’t involve Irish or French teams will not have longevity.
 
It’s to be hoped that the English clubs back down and realise their best chance of success is to stay in the Heineken and that the Welsh teams follow suit. With the proposed new format for the Heineken it stands to become an even better, more exciting tournament!
 
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