It’s a little apt that Heineken’s current television campaign is based on The Great Escape, for that is exactly what Leinster and Munster were attempting this weekend. Both teams needed big wins, and some other good results around them, to stand any chance of still being in contention next weekend. Both got results that will help them in major ways, yet both teams also left a lot behind them on the pitch that could have helped their cases. Ulster too got the required job done and sorted out a qualified spot, but that home quarter final still hangs in the air. And Connacht, well once more nobody predicted a win, but an equal amount didn’t predict the level of that hammering.
Of all four teams in action, it has to be said that Ulster probably looked most complete, baring in mind that they are missing too stars in the shape of Ferris and Bowe. Still, they fielded shooters like Payne, Jackson and the brute force of Nick Williams and more and came away with a solid win. The worrying thing is how they fell off in the third quarter, and it was doubly worrying that they didn’t exactly have the match sewn up at that stage. That they had the ambition for the bonus point too and were so well primed to get it too only for Pienaar to make an extremely uncharacteristic error was unsettling too. The bonus point of course had no bearing on the qualification but it was yet another of those championship moments, and Ulster fell short. Like the argument for Munster qualifying and not doing much with it, Ulster need to fins consistency of brilliance in order to be proper contenders in the knock outs. For now though, with sheer brilliance such as that scintillating run from Darren Cave for his try, this will do. Ulster 23 – 6 Glasgow
Connacht fans were hoping for more, but the hammering they got was truly disheartening. The effect is lessened somewhat by the fact that Quins are simply unstoppable this season and that Connacht were missing Dan Parks. Though he can misfire, for the most part he has guided them exceptionally well this season and his presence was definitely missed. Admittedly there was some questionable refereeing and Connacht leaked two tries that came whilst they were most deflated, at the end of the game and one when they were down to 13 men. A spirited first half saw a smaller margin however and moving on to host Zebre in Galway you would think Elwood’s men are primed for a fine finish to their second, and largely more successful, Heineken Cup campaign. Harlequins 47 – 9 Connacht
Then Saturday came and the calculators were out. After Sale couldn’t do Leinster a favour by beating Montpellier, the bonus point against Scarlets was all the more crucial. Realistically to be any way comfortable in the table Leinster need two bonus point wins in a row. And boy did they know it. From the off Sexton was repeatedly going to the corner. Tries tries and more tries. And thanks to titanic efforts from Healy, Kearney, Fitzgerald and Jennings the job was done shortly after half time. Again, like the Ulster game, Leinster left tries out there, particularly in the first half where infuriating fumbles and communication break downs led to missed chances. For the most part though Leinster looked so much more complete, with the returning wounded of Kearney, O’Driscoll and Fitzgerald adding much needed spark. And staying with Fitzgerald, what a performance from somebody who has in the past taken a few games to get back into a rhythm, yet here he showed up to involved in absolutely every inch of the pitch and got a deserved man of the match award for his troubles. Aside from the Scarlets try, which technically was against 14 men, the Leinster defence looked remarkable too though Exeter may ask more questions of it. Still, part one done and all that. Leinster 33 – 11 Scarlets
Deja vu struck on Sunday when Munster took the field in Scotland, they too were striving for a performance like Leinster’s. What they produced did fall unfortunately short, like Leinster they left a lot of scores out there. It was telling also that the game raised in intensity immensely when Keatley replaced O’Gara. Penney cannot deny it now that Keatley must start against Racing next weekend, which is all the more likely now given that O’Gara will surely be cited for his senseless lashing out at Sean Cox which will surely earn him at least a week off, and if more could see him miss the Six Nations opener in February. He will be missed for many reasons, but Keatley really has to be able to step up at this stage. Edinburgh 17 – 26 Munster
So as for permutations and all of that, the table currently looks like this :
What this means is that Leinster and Munster fans will be hoping for losses next week for Leicester and Montpellier, meaning that wins for both provinces will see them qualify in both runner up spots. As for who goes where, Munster would currently occupy seventh place with one try more than Leinster though it has to be said both teams would have nightmare quarter finals away to any two from Clermont/Harlequins/Toulouse. There are other possibilities such as Montpellier gaining a losing bonus point meaning try bonus points and try difference decides which of Leinster or Munster go through. Leicester too could snag a win against Toulouse and coupled with a good result for Montpellier, both provinces would slip into the Amlin if they were to win next week. It’s brain frying stuff, no doubt about it, but both teams can do no more than play the game in front of them. It’s going to be one hell of a weekend of rugby next weekend, make no mistake. Prepare to have your nerves shattered.