It’s up to Sara­cens and Mun­ster to stop a di­rect re­peat of the 2013 fi­nal but I wouldn’t bet on it

Bray People - - SPORT - SI­MON NOR­TON

THE WEEKEND held such prom­ise and started so well but alas the dreams of Ir­ish laden semi-fi­nals in the Aviva sta­dium haven’t come to pass.

Mun­ster will be the only prov­ince fly­ing the flag in a fi­nal four that looks sus­pi­ciously sim­i­lar to last year.

It’s now up to Sara­cen’s and them­selves to stop a di­rect re­peat of the 2013 fi­nal but on the form shown by both Toulon and Cler­mont I wouldn’t be putting too much money on it.

Of course you can never write off Mun­ster and they cer­tainly have ev­ery chance of caus­ing an up­set if they can recre­ate the in­ten­sity they showed for the ma­jor­ity of their match against Toulouse.

These two jug­ger­nauts of Heineken Cup rugby met for the first time since the 2008 fi­nal (and also for the first time in Thomond Park ) on Satur­day and the early kick off did lit­tle to dampen the elec­tric at­mos­phere.

The se­lec­tion shenani­gans that Guy Noves is fa­mous for con­tin­ued right up to an hour be­fore kick off as the highly in­flu­en­tial (and sup­pos­edly in­jured) out half Luke McAl­lis­ter was drafted in at the last minute.

It didn’t faze Mun­ster one iota though as they be­gan the game with a fe­roc­ity we haven’t seen from them this sea­son so far. I re­alise that Toulouse aren’t the team they once were but there are very few sides that could live with that kind of ruth­less ag­gres­sion.

Or­di­nar­ily the sight of cap­tain and chief poacher, Peter O’Ma­hony, head­ing for the side­lines with only 10 or so min­utes on the clock would spell dis­as­ter but birth­day boy, CJ Stander, en­tered the fray and went on to give a man of the match per­for­mance. Stander has very much been on the fringes for the last two sea­sons but he well and truly an­nounced him­self onto the Heineken Cup stage with a tire­less work rate and beefy car­ries, topped off with a try for good mea­sure.

Af­ter 25 min­utes Mun­ster had 80% pos­ses­sion into a fairly sig­nif­i­cant wind and the ter­ri­tory stats showed that Toulouse hadn’t even been in their 22 once. If I had to play devil’s ad­vo­cate it is a shame that Mun­ster didn't fin­ish their French vis­i­tors off with all the stats so heav­ily in their favour. In­deed, Toulouse went on to en­joy some­thing of a pur­ple patch in the sec­ond half that threat­ened to undo all of the home side’s good work.

The scrum was also a bit of anom­aly as Mun­ster seemed to have the dom­i­nant set piece in all but Nigel Owen's eyes (and I guess he’s the one who re­ally counts). Gurthro Steenkamp was driv­ing side­ways into his coun­try­man BJ Botha for the ma­jor­ity of the match but didn't get pulled up on it at all.

In­deed it was the other side of the scrum that caught Owen’s at­ten­tion with Dave Kil­coyne and Yo­han Montes re­ceiv­ing their 10 minute march­ing or­ders for bold be­hav­ior at scrum time. Poor Killer is mak­ing a habit of these yel­low cards.

Even­tu­ally Mun­ster got their groove back and the flood gates re­ally opened. Paul O’Con­nell’s try at the death came from a slick pas­sage of play in­volv­ing for­ward’s and backs that hinted at the level of skill coach Rob Pen­ney is try­ing to im­ple­ment but the match was well and truly over as a con­test by that stage.

Un­for­tu­nately Ul­ster ’ s match up with Sara­cen’s ended as a con­test af­ter it had barely even started. Dur­ing the long stop­page fol­low­ing the nasty, fourth minute col­li­sion be­tween Jared Payne and Andy Goode I was de­bat­ing whether or not it should be a warn­ing or a yel­low card for Payne. To be hon­est I was lean­ing to­wards the warn­ing. The red card he re­ceived I think was un­duly harsh as, from the slow mo­tion re­ply, he keeps his eyes on the ball for the en­tirety of his run and doesn’t even see Goode un­til the last sec­ond. I un­der­stand there is a duty of care to the man in the air but if he doesn’t even know he’s there it’s noth­ing more than an un­for­tu­nate col­li­sion. Thank­fully Goode is ok though as it’s never nice to see some­one car­ried off on a stretcher.

To com­pound mat­ters for Ul­ster, not only was Ruan Pien­arr op­er­at­ing with only one shoul­der (winc­ing in pain ev­ery time he passed the ball) but Rory Best had to leave the field af­ter only 13 min­utes. The karma gods were not look­ing kindly on the Raven­hill faith­ful. What fol­lowed, how­ever, was a les­son in pride, pas­sion and bloody mind­ed­ness.

The com­bi­na­tion of be­ing backed into a cor­ner with no hope and hav­ing to watch Chris Ashton per­form the in­fu­ri­at­ing ‘ ash-splash’ as he scored his try seemed to unite the team and they played out of their skin. To be in with a shout of win­ning the game in the fi­nal play is tes­ta­ment to Ul­ster as a side and their fans should be re­ally proud of them.

They weren’t the only ones to be up against seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able odds at the weekend ei­ther. Ul­ster may have played with 14 men but Le­in­ster were play­ing against 16. The near fa­nat­i­cal home sup­port that Toulon have (driven on by that ex­citable gen­tle­man with the face tat­too) re­ally is their 16th man and when you add that to the em­bar­rass­ment of riches they al­ready have on the pitch it makes for a se­ri­ously dif­fi­cult day at the of­fice for any­one who vis­its.

Matt O’Con­nor must have suf­fered a case of déjà vu as his Le­ices­ter team went out at the same stage in the Stade Felix Mayol last year.

To take on the might of Toulon in their back gar­den you need to be at your level best for the full 80 and un­for­tu­nately Le­in­ster weren’t.

There was a lack of co­he­sion in the back­line com­bined with a mal­func­tion­ing li­ne­out, an abun­dance of un­forced er­rors and too many missed tack­les.

St­ef­fon Ar­mitage also did what he does best, turn­ing over the ball ad nau­seam as soon as any Le­in­ster player was re­motely iso­lated.

They did man­age to keep the siege at bay for the first half as Toulon also made quite a few un­char­ac­ter­is­tic han­dling er­rors but the de­fence was only go­ing to hold out for so long. Once they went a try be­hind they didn’t seem to pos­sess the kind of fire power re­quired to pull them­selves back into it.

It was Le­in­ster’s heav­i­est Euro­pean de­feat since 2007 and a rather un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous and flat way to exit, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing Brian O’Driscoll’s swan song sea­son.

O’Con­ner will now have to re­group this tal­ented bunch of play­ers and con­cen­trate on the Pro 12, which they’re still top of lest we for­get. I still think there’s sil­ver­ware on the cards for BOD in a blue jersey.

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