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