CASTRES, FRANCE – Amid speculation that French clubs aren’t interested in the Heineken Cup, three Top 14 sides – Toulon, Clermont and Toulouse – line up alongside Irish-based Pro12 outfits Leinster, Munster and Ulster, and Aviva Premiership clubs Leicester and Saracens in the last eight.
That list features six former champions, who have between them lifted the cup 13 times in its 18-year history – four-time winners Toulouse, three-time champions Leinster, double duo Munster and Leicester, 1999 title winners Ulster and current holders Toulon.
Ulster will entertain Saracens, last season’s losing finalists Clermont face Leicester, Toulon are at home to Leinster and – after making a mess of their quest for a home quarter-final – Toulouse will travel to Munster for the first time in their Heineken Cup history.
Meanwhile, pool runners up Northampton, Harlequins and Gloucester are Amlin Cup-bound, where Amlin pool winners, Bath, Wasps, Stade Francais, Sale and Brive lie in wait.
Mark Anscombe’s Ulster made it six from six in this season’s Heineken Cup when they edged a thriller against Leicester 22-19 to become the first side since Munster in 2006 to win at Welford Road in European competition.
Scrum-half Ruan Pienaar scored all Ulster’s points, including a charge-down try midway through the second half, and a perfect display of kicking. France-bound Toby Flood, meanwhile kicked four penalties and set up and converted Niall Morris’s 50th-minute try.
The result means that Saracens will be the first side to play in front of 18,000 baying Ulster fans at a redeveloped Ravenhill in April.
But it was Toulouse’s limp to victory at a rain-sodden Zebre that was the talking point of the final round of the group stages.
Guy Noves’ side could – and should – have been looking forward to a home quarter-final. All they had to do was bag a try-scoring bonus point.
But some never-say-die defending from the Italians, combined with a criminal lack of on-pitch leadership meant that a 10-3 halftime lead could only be converted into a 16-6 final score. It means the four-time Heineken Cup champions will face Munster at Thomond Park in the last eight.
Worse for Toulouse and France, Thierry Dusautoir picked up an injury that will keep him out of the Six Nations.
Clermont did not make the same mistake. Despite equally bad weather, they declared their intention to go for tries against Racing Metro by turning down a relatively straightforward penalty chance in the opening minutes. Instead they kicked for touch as they looked for the try-scoring bonus point that would guarantee them a home quarter final.
It paid off. They were halfway there by halftime, and when replacement Vincent Debarty touched down with 15 minutes remaining, it was job done. Racing, whose season is going from bad to worse via terrible, could only muster a Maxime Marchenaud penalty in response.
Clermont now await the April arrival of Leicester.
Leinster made sure of a home quarter-final for the 10th time in 13 years with a 36-3 win over 14-man Ospreys at the RDS on Friday. The scores were 3-3 when referee Romain Poite sent off Welsh lock Ian Evans after just 20 minutes for stamping on Mick McCarthy in a ruck. After that, it was all one-way traffic, as Leinster ran in four tries, including two penalty tries without reply.
Evans’s indiscretion could mean he will miss the Six Nations.
Northampton found themselves briefly in contention for a quarter-final slot with a 13-3 win over Castres at Franklin’s Gardens. Both teams knew they were in with a chance of more European action if they won the game and finished as runners-up to Leinster in the Pool. That probably explains why defences reigned. The scores were 3-3 going into the final five minutes, before Stephen Myler landed a crucial penalty and – as Castres belatedly tried to chase the game – George Pisi charged down a Rory Kockott kick to score with the final play of the match.
The Saints were not in the last qualification place for long. Saracens overtook them with a record-breaking 11-try, 64-6 thumping of Connacht at Allianz Park. Pat Lam’s visitors were still in with a shout of the last eight themselves going into the game, but Charlie Hodgson’s clever use of the Vunipola brothers broke their line time and again.
Dan Parks had put the Irish side 6-5 up after 20 minutes, but that was as good as it got, as the hosts went on a try-scoring rampage – running in five touchdowns in the last 15 minutes. David Strettle scored a hat-trick, and Chris Ashton a brace, while Alex Goode, Shalk Brits, George Kruis, James Johnston, Jackson Wray and Chris Wyles all touched down.
The trusty boot of Jonny Wilkinson ensured reigning Heineken Cup champions Toulon have home advantage in the last eight. He kicked all the Var side’s points as they beat Glasgow Warriors 15-8 at Scotstoun. Warriors’ captain Chris Fusaro scored the only try of the match in the 63rd minute, but the game was over bar the shouting by the time he crossed the whitewash.
Cardiff Blues’ faint hopes of qualifying for the Amlin Cup came to a shuddering halt in defeat at the Arms Park to Exeter Chiefs. The game didn’t go to plan for the Blues from the outset. They found themselves 13-0 down midway through the first half, and were unable to pull back the deficit, despite two penalties and a conversion for Leigh Halfpenny and a try for Alex Cuthbert.
Montpellier returned to winning ways with a relatively straightforward 24-6 home win against Benetton Treviso. Former All Black Rene Ranger scored his first Heineken Cup try as the Herault side did the double over the Italians, notched up their first home win in this season’s competition, and made sure they finished third in Pool Five.
Home advantage did not count for Perpignan, who were beaten 36-18 at Stade Aime Giral by Gloucester – and lost winger Sofiane Guitoune to injury for the rest of the season in the process. The five-try bonus-point win means the Cherry and Whites have an Amlin Cup appointment in the Spring.
Just three minutes remained on the clock when Harlequins scored the points that saw them join Heineken Cup rejects Gloucester and Northampton in Europe’s second tier competition. But Ben Botica held his nerve to kick the decisive penalty that saw the Londoners beat Scarlets 20-22 at Parc y Scarlets. Until then, the Welsh side looked certain to hang on to the slender lead that would have ensured Welsh interest in Europe would continue a while longer.
And Munster rain in six tries to beat Edinburgh 38-6 at Thomond Park to celebrate their 15th Heineken Cup quarter final appearance in 16 years. James Coughlan and Johne Murphy touched down in the first half, while Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo and Felix Jones added second-half tries.
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