CASTRES, FRANCE – Two dramatic last-gasp away wins, three cases of sweet revenge, a brace of predicted thumpings, the promise of a great escape, and a huge favour coupled with one big surprise victory on the road. The fourth round of Heineken Cup matches had them all.
Former champions Munster and Leicester both fought back from the brink to pick up one-point wins even as the referee was lifting the whistle to his lips to end their respective matches.
Munster roared into pole position in Pool Six on Saturday with a 17-18 win in Perpignan thanks to a stunning JJ Hanrahan try. The clock was already in the red when his audacious sidestep 25 metres out cut open the hosts’ defence and allowed him score out wide.
Two minutes earlier, a third victory in four Heineken Cup matches for the men from southwest Ireland had seemed impossible, when Italian Tommaso Benvenuti touched down for Perpignan.
Twenty-four hours later, Leicester maintained a grip on the coat-tails of Heineken Cup Pool Five leaders Ulster with a late victory in Montpellier.
After a scoreless first 40, The Top 14 side looked to have a revenge win in the bag with two tries in 10 second-half minutes. But, with just over a minute left on the clock, centre Nick Goneva touched down to pull the Aviva Premiership side back to within one point.
Ryan Lamb duly converted but misjudged the timing of his kick, which meant that there was time for one last, desperate Montpellier attack. It came to nothing.
Northampton Saints, Ospreys and Toulouse all set their Heineken Cup records straight after defeats in their third round of matches.
The Saints were unrecognisable from the side humbled 40-7 at Franklins Gardens last weekend as they ended Leinster’s unbeaten cup run. In the process, they cut the three-time champions’ lead in Pool One to four points.
George North scored the first of the visitors two unanswered tries as the visitors won 18-9 in front of the week’s largest Heineken Cup crowd at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.
Ospreys, back in the safe confines of Liberty Stadium, pretty much ended Pool One rivals’ Castres qualification hopes with a 21-12 battle-of-the-boot win. Dan Biggar kicked the Welsh side to their first four-pointer of the competition with seven penalties to Rory Kockott’s four.
Toulouse ran in five tries at Connacht’s Showground to win 37-9 and consign last week’s shock 16-14 defeat at Ernest Wallon to history. Maxime Medard scored a brace, while Christopher Tolofua, Louis Picamoles and Gael Fickou also touched down.
That win bounced the four-time Heineken Cup champions back to the top of Pool Three a matter of hours after Saracens had – as expected – ripped Zebre apart. They secured their bonus point in just 26 minutes on their way to a 64-3 home win.
The Londoners scored nine tries to mark their first Heineken Cup appearance at Allianz Park, and add to the five they scored in the reverse fixture in Italy last weekend. The victory leaves Sarries and Toulouse level on 15 points after four games – and turns January’s clash at Ernest Wallon in the new year into a qualification decider.
Ulster were also rampant as they beat Benetton Treviso 35-3 at Stadio Comunale di Monigo. Luke Marshall scored two minutes before the break, while Craig Gilroy, Robbie Diack and Jared Payne made sure of the bonus point in the second half.
That win means the Northern Irish side strengthened their grip on Pool Five, and – with Leinster losing to Northampton – they are now the only unbeaten team in the competition.
Harlequins, meanwhile, continued their remarkable Heineken Cup fightback, as they strengthened their bid to become the first side to qualify for the knockout phase after losing their opening two Pool matches.
Their chances remain slim, but back-to-back wins over Racing Metro means that if they beat Clermont at home and Scarlets away – and the rugby gods look down on them favourably – they could still pull off a remarkable turnaround.
Rain ruined any chances of a repeat of the joyous four-try exhibition they put on in Nantes last week, but a terrific try from Charlie Walker ensured they picked up four points at The Stoop. Not even the Racing return of Jamie Roberts – who lined up alongside Lions’ cohorts Dan Lydiate, Mike Phillips and Jonny Sexton – could improve the fortunes of the Top 14 outfit.
Last season’s Heineken Cup finalists Clermont and Toulon both picked up potentially crucial wins. The champions were made to work for their 32-20 home win over Exeter Chiefs, who – for the second weekend in a row – refused to be awed by the legendary names on the teamsheet of their illustrious opponents.
The visitors were within five points of their hosts going into the final quarter. But Jonny Wilkinson, who came on as a replacement, scored his first try in three years and three months to secure the bonus point and put the game beyond doubt.
Napolioni Nalaga scored the first of his two tries after only 17 seconds as Clermont moved three points clear at the top of Pool Four with a 31-13 bonus-point win at Scarlets that all-but ended the Welsh side’s hopes of reaching the knockout phase.
Fritz Lee came off the bench to score, and the powerful French pack won a penalty try as the Top 14 club second the bonus point that makes them favourites to qualify from the Pool.
Edinburgh did Pool Six leaders and Pro12 rivals Munster a huge favour as they avenged last weekend’s Heineken Cup defeat against Gloucester with an 16-10 victory at Kingsholm.
Kiwi centre Ben Atiga and the boot of Jack Cuthbert scored the crucial points as Edinburgh won only their fourth Heineken Cup game on English soil in 16 attempts, but this was a win based on tenacious, never-say-die defence.
Cardiff Blues edged a tense encounter at Glasgow Warriors’ Scotstoun to briefly move to the top of Pool Two on Friday night. Rhys Patchell and Leigh Halfpenny – who is the latest reported target for Toulon – had kicked the visitors into a 9-0 lead, before Glasgow prop Ryan Grant crashed over for a converted try to give the hosts a glimmer of hope with nine minutes left on the clock. but Duncan Weir missed a chance to win it for the Warriors when he pushed a long-range penalty wide of the posts with little more than a minute remaining.
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