After a weekend of scintillating rugby, excitement, controversy, crunching tackles and some upsets for European rugby greats, two French sides, one English and one Irish will clash in the Heineken Cup semi-finals.
Munster well and truly dispatched four-time winners Toulouse in arguably the best performance of the weekend; Leicester came close to ending Clermont’s 74 home game winning streak, but not close enough; Saracens narrowly saw off a Herculean effort from 14 Ulstermen, after Jared Payne was red carded in the fifth minute for taking Alex Payne out in the air; and reigning Champions Toulon did enough to keep previous Champions Leinster quiet, bringing Brian O’Driscoll’s European rugby career to a close.
Here’s our Team of the Quarters:
1. John Afoa (Ulster) – Saracens conceded a hell of a lot of penalties, largely down to Afoa’s tireless work at the scrum.
2. Schalk Brits (Saracens) – the fact this guy is a hooker is astonishing – an exhilarating runner with ball in hand, he troubled Ulster’s defence with probing runs and also threw accurately into the lineout.
3. Logovi’i Mulipola (Leicester) – forced to play 80 minutes out of position at tighthead rather than loose, Mulipola was titanic, repeatedly bursting through tackles and giving everything he could.
Deserves a mention: Davit Zirakashvili (Clermont) – the Georgian prop troubled the Leicester front row stalwarts in the set-piece and showed deft hands in his offload to Fofana to set up Clermont’s try.
4. Danie Russouw (Toulon) – the absence of Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams was a concern for Toulon but Russouw, usually a back row, proved why he’s also been capped by South Africa at lock. It was as if the carrying-grunt of Botha and the lineout-prowess of Williams had combined to produce Russouw’s performance.
Deserves a mention: Ed Slater (Leicester) – courageous leader, who put in yet another big shift to show the England coaches he’s not as far down the international second row pecking order as some might think.
5. Paul O’Connell (Munster) – it’s hard to remember the last time this man wouldn’t feature on one of these lists. He carried hard, fielded Toulouses restarts well, assumed the captaincy when Peter O’Mahony got injured and his try at the death epitomised his team’s intensity.
6. CJ Stander (Munster) – the South African didn’t start the match but more than ably filled in when O’Mahony came off with a damaged shoulder. A similar gristly style of play to to the Irish blindside, Stander was hugely effective at slowing Toulouse’s ball at the breakdown.
7. Julian Salvi (Leicester) – another constant menace at the breakdown, Salvi was at his foraging best.
8. Steffon Armitage (Toulon) – playing in France aside, it must be increasingly difficult for the England coaching set-up to justify not picking him for international duty, even with great strength in depth in the back-row. Given injuries to the likes of Chris Masoe, he has adjusted to play no.8 superbly as he has bucket loads of pace and a low centre of gravity – making him difficult to bring down – while he has retained his natural openside work at the ruck.
Deserves a mention: Billy Vunipola (Saracens) – wore 6 on his back but put in a terrific shift from the base of the scrum, carrying well on return from injury.
9. Morgan Parra (Clermont) – for all his disciplinary problems this season, he turned out a composed performance, accurately distributing the ball and keeping Clermont’s scoreboard ticking over.
10. Owen Williams (Leicester) – the young Welshman showed composure and guile given the enormity of the occasion and produced a tactical kicking master class, including a sublime cross-field chip to set up Jordan Crane’s try.
11. Chris Ashton (Saracens) – high work rate and a cutting edge like the Ashton of old. His two tries takes him to a total of nine in this campaign, one short of equalling the all-time Heineken Cup try-scoring record.
12. Matt Giteau (Toulon) – made outstanding use of the little space that Leinster gave him and filled in at fly-half when Jonny Wilkinson went off injured, converting two second half tries.
Deserves a mention: Wesley Fofana (Clermont) – scything runs and a great support line off Zirakashvili for a typically Fofana-esque try.
13. Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon) – drew about five Leinster defenders before giving the offload to Drew Mitchell for the try – one of a number of barnstorming runs and also immovable at the breakdown, working like a fourth back row.
14. Tommy Bowe (Ulster) – back from injury after missing Ireland’s 6 Nations campaign, Bowe showed why he was one of the leading candidates for a Lions Test spot, making himself busy all day in Ulster’s brave display.
15. Delon Armitage (Toulon) – in an exceptional day for the Armitage brothers, full-back Delon expertly fielded Jimmy Gopperth’s kicking game and casually slotted a monstrous hoof of a penalty from 55 metres out to seal the game.
Other notable mentions:
The Ulster Crowd – they never gave up hope and, in the newly renovated Ravenhill Stadium, good God they were loud!
Saracens’ defence – the ‘Wolf Pack’ held out 40 phases of attack by an irrepressible Ulster side in the dying minutes.
Moving onto the semi-finals, the clashes will be Saracens v Clermont at Twickenham on 26th April and Toulon v Munster at the Stade Velodrome, Marseille on 27th.
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