We’re in for an ex­cit­ing week­end of top ac­tion

Bray People - - SPORT - SIMON NOR­TON

THE HEINEKEN CUP group stage's penul­ti­mate games took place last week­end and left the prov­inces in no un­cer­tain terms as to what had to be done to se­cure safe pas­sage into the quar­ter­fi­nals. With one through, one out and two on a knife edge their for­tunes are var­ied, mak­ing for a crack­ing round 6 to come.

Ul­ster once again plied their im­pres­sive trade on the Fri­day night with a healthy vic­tory over Glas­gow at Raven­hill in bi­b­li­cal con­di­tions to be­come the first team to qual­ify for the next stage.

The weather was some­thing of a lev­eller in the first half and it showed with only a penalty and a Nick Wil­liams (at his ram­pag­ing best) try to Ul­ster's name de­spite their ter­ri­to­rial dom­i­nance at the break.

In this re­gard, mae­stro Ruan Pien­aar played a shrewd game with a mul­ti­tude of ae­rial at­tacks, forc­ing Glas­gow into some costly han­dling er­rors.

It wasn't un­til the in­tro­duc­tion of the newly mar­ried scrum half Paul Mar­shall (and the re­moval of the epic down­pour) that the home side really got mov­ing with tries from Jared Payne and a par­tic­u­larly fine ef­fort from Dar­ren Cave to put the win be­yond doubt.

Their fail­ure to se­cure the bonus point try how­ever has put them un­der a fair bit of pres­sure to se­cure a home quar­ter-fi­nal.

This made Pien­aar's kick to touch in the last play of the game rather baf­fling as they now have to get some­thing out of this week­end's match in Cas­tres to avoid this even­tu­al­ity.

Ul­ster have never won a com­pet­i­tive match on French soil so the chance of a trip to Toulon, Cler­mont or Toulouse in the knock outs will not sit well.

Con­nacht's Satur­day lunchtime fix­ture pit­ted them against Conor O'Shea's high fly­ing Har­lequins at the Twick­en­ham Stoop.

The dom­i­nance of Har­lequin's pack at the break­down and scrum was the ini­tial un­do­ing of the Western­ers, cul­mi­nat­ing in a penalty try five min­utes be­fore the break.

To give Con­nacht their dues they were full of free flow­ing rugby with young Tier­nan O'Hal­lo­ran in par­tic­u­lar run­ning some fab­u­lous lines. Alas the flood gates opened fol­low­ing a spat of yel­low cards with Quin's favourite Ugo Monye claim­ing the bonus point try on his 200th cap for the club.

Two fur­ther tries in the last two min­utes put a gloss on the score line that Con­nacht didn't de­serve but the Heineken Cup can be a harsh mis­tress at times.

All in all I think Con­nacht will be happy with their devel­op­ment in what will be Eric El­wood's last sea­son in charge, their vic­tory over Biar­ritz in the Show­grounds be­ing the high­light.

The ap­point­ment of a new coach has been a touch more tu­mul­tuous than it needed to be with the me­dia band­wagon jump­ing on the fact that Ed­die O'Sul­li­van wasn't con­sid­ered, cou­pled with first choice Sean Hol­ley's re­fusal.

In Pat Lam they have a coach that will surely buy into Con­nacht's unique ethos, pro­gress­ing on from all the good work that El­wood has done in the province over the last few years.

The hem­or­rhag­ing of their best and bright­est to the big­ger prov­inces will have to be the first item on his agenda with the IRFU.

Mean­while one of the big bad prov­inces in ques­tion gave them­selves a Heineken life­line with a bonus point win over the Scar­lets at the RDS on Satur­day evening. The re­turn of the ex­cep­tional trio of Kear­ney, Fitzger­ald and O'Driscoll aided in a win that saw the back­line be­gin to look more akin to the one that won three ti­tles in four years.

Fitzger­ald looked hun­gry for work through­out and made a con­sid­er­able amount of line breaks, bag­ging him­self a try and the man of the match award in the process. Kear­ney also ex­uded confi- dence with an as­sured dis­play, show­ing lit­tle rem­i­nance of his back surgery with a pirou­ette to score un­der the posts.

An in­jury to O'Driscoll's 'good' an­kle will have Joe Sh­midt on ten­der hooks for the week, although the war horse him­self has stated it's not that bad (but then he usu­ally plays bro­ken).

His deft flicks and off­loads were a thing of beauty for the 20 min­utes he was on, re­mind­ing us all of what we were miss­ing.

Le­in­ster will need all the help they can get next week­end where they'll re­quire an­other bonus point win in Ex­eter but they've cer­tainly given them­selves a fight­ing chance at pro­gres­sion.

Mun­ster, on the other hand, didn't quite do all they could on their trav­els to Ed­in­burgh where they failed to se­cure the bonus point, ef­fec­tively rul­ing out the ad­van­tage they had over Le­in­ster in the race for one of the two pre­cious run­ner up spots.

Their only chance of top­ping the group is if Sara­cens lose to Ed­in­burgh which I really can't see hap­pen­ing, so they may live to re­gret the missed op­por­tu­nity.

You'd have been for­given for think­ing that this match would have been a romp for the reds with Ed­in­burgh win­less and only play­ing for pride but the Scots had other ideas.

In the quiet of Mur­ray­field (a li­brary has more at­mos­phere), Mun­ster tried their col­lec­tive hearts out but to lit­tle en­deav­our, only achiev­ing two of the four tries re­quired.

They seemed to get them­selves into the right po­si­tions only for er­rors to creep in, al­low­ing Ed­in­burgh to clear their lines.

Their game plan also needs to be looked at, par­tic­u­larly in mid­field where they seem clue­less at times.

The scrum was one of the few pluses with Dave Kil­coyne in fine fet­tle, Ire­land en­joy­ing a glut of loose heads on form at the moment.

Next week they'll be fac­ing a Rac­ing Metro side who will have hopefully given up the ghost when they visit Thomond Park, although even their B team will be lit­tered with in­ter­na­tion­als.

Chances are they'll be with­out Ro­nan O'Gara who's been cited (at time of press) fol­low­ing his moment of mad­ness as he lashed a kick at Sean Cox's legs out of pure frus­tra­tion.

You'd have thought the all-time top point's scorer would know bet­ter by now. I'd ar­gue that Mun­ster would be bet­ter served with Keat­ley at 10 any­way with JJ Han­ra­han as back up, ef­fec­tively giv­ing the mis­fir­ing mid­field a bit more time on the ball.

So now to the maths for next week­end's run­ner up qual­i­fi­ca­tion pos­si­bil­i­ties (and I'll try not to bore you too much).

Es­sen­tially there are three teams vy­ing for two places (Mont­pel­lier, Le­in­ster and Mun­ster).

If Toulouse are beaten by Leicester but se­cure two los­ing bonus points along the way they'll also be in the mix (with 20 points) but I'd ex­pect them to do the job in Stade Toulou­sain and top the group, rul­ing Leicester out.

Biar­ritz and Northamp­ton could both get 19 points with bonus wins so to keep th­ese two teams out of the run­ning, Mun­ster and Le­in­ster need the bonus points to fin­ish on 20 apiece.

Mont­pel­lier host a Toulon team yet to be beaten so fin­gers crossed that re­mains the case, rul­ing them out of con­tention. A win for Mont­pel­lier would send them through at the ex­pense of one of the two prov­inces. If this comes to pass it will come down to tries scored where Mun­ster cur­rently hold the up­per hand with nine over Le­in­ster's eight. Mun­ster also have the lux­ury of know­ing what they have to do as they don't play un­til the Sun­day.

What­ever hap­pens, we're in for an­other nail bit­ing week­end!

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