Best of the Weekend: High-profile upsets open up Heineken Cup
Another enthralling set of Heineken Cup fixtures set us on the way to Christmas in style. The only shame is that we have to wait until January 11 for the next instalment. Here is your regular run-down.
Biarritz ward off brave Connacht as Ospreys upset Toulouse
The odds of a Connacht double over Biarritz would have been utterly astronomical before the beginning of this tournament, but as a day-long deluge of rain soaked the Parc des Sports Aguilera, the playing field became more level. However, in a weekend of upsets, the Basque men prevailed to record an important 17-0 win. Although the hosts’ attack was severely blunted by the horrendous conditions and waterlogged surface, Dan Parks was never given a chance to control matters. On the same night at Murrayfield, Racing Metro muscled out Edinburgh to make last season’s semi-final seem like an extremely distant memory.
Pool two – widely renowned at this year’s group of death – again threw up a couple of intriguing ties. Firstly, defying the woe that has infiltrated Welsh rugby, Ospreys took advantage on an out-of-sorts Toulouse at the Liberty Stadium. A sharp finish from livewire wing Eli Walker, exceptional throughout, proved enough to split the sides as Ryan Jones and Justin Tipuric nullified the rampaging Louis Picamoles.
Vincent Clerc’s horrendous error in the final play of the game with the line at his mercy summed up a bad day for the Frenchmen and, as it meant a losing bonus point slipped away. That could also prove vital shake-up, with Leicester Tigers navigating some baffling Alain Rolland-isms on the way to snatching a 14-13 triumph at Treviso.
Chiefs seal Scarlets double, champions defeated in Dublin
One day Exeter might progress past the perception of plucky underdogs. Until that time comes though, each of their successes is met with widespread glee. The latest one of those, a 30-20 beating of the Scarlets at Sandy Park, was one of the better coups, even for this exceptionally spirited bunch. Llanelli crossed the Severn Bridge with a heap of internationals and gave it their all, yet scores from Ian Whitten, Simon Allcott and James Scaysbrook sent them packing.
Elsewhere in that perilous pool, Leinster did their best London bus impression – going down to a second defeat in a week on the back of 17 unbeaten European assignments. The precocious Wesley Fofana was brilliant for Clermont and snatched his team’s only try, while Morgan Parra’s boot did the rest as the Dubliners were forced into numerous scrum and ruck offences. Shane Jennings and Fergus McFadden went over in the last quarter to salvage a consolation point, but the holders are on the brink.
There was more Irish frustration in Belfast, Ulster ousted by a fantastic backs-to-the-wall effort from Northampton. In a game that may be rued later for a nasty knee injury to Lion-in-waiting Tommy Bowe, the East Midlanders edged home 10-9, all of their points in the opening 20 minutes. A last-ditch tackle from Jamie Elliott was instrumental in that, and the Saints now have a faint sniff. The same cannot be said for Glasgow, though. Despite so nearly toppling complacent Castres yesterday, the Scots were overturned at the last.
Saturday’s final couple of matches featured mixed British fortunes. Harlequins enjoyed themselves against Zebre, piling up seven more tries against the travelling Italians. However, despite a score after four minutes for skipper Sam Warburton, the courageous Cardiff Blues went down 34-21 in Montpellier.
Saracens wreak revenge on Munster, Sale and Irish handed hidings
Munster’s visit to Vicarage Road was never going to be a try-fest, but a pair of evenly matched outfits still managed to produce a very entertaining spectacle. Ronan O’Gara was unlucky to be on the losing side following a virtuoso display of pinpoint punting, but Will Fraser and George Kruis were relentless around the park and deservedly brought the Fez-Heads to victory. A brutal case of Sunday blues befell Sale though, the Stockport side continuing to slide by being totally dismantled at Toulon. Both Armitage brothers got on the scoresheet as floodgates opened embarrassingly in the second half – 62-0 the final result. Ouch.
The Amlin Challenge was once again a platform for Gloucester to progress, London Irish the victims of a 47-3 mauling. To round off, Worcester could not quite complete a double over Perpignan and Joe Launchbury was the second half super sub as London Wasps beat Bayonne 30-16. Dragons finished the weekend by breezing past Mogliano.
Any member of the Saracens back row could have bagged Hero of the Weekend, and Gloucester’s Shane Monahan can count himself unlucky after a four-try afternoon. But the manner in which Morgan Parra ran the game for Clermont wins out. The diminutive scrum half was in Wayne Barnes’ ear all match. A veritable Napoleon.
Alain’s Rolland’s officiating probably merited Villain of the Weekend condemnation, a bizarre penalty try for Treviso leaving some apoplectic and all at least puzzled. Then Castres’ Ibrahim Diarra aimed a spiteful, savage stamp onto Moray Low’s face. Game, set and match.
Leicester Tigers’ Italian job was notable for two penalty tries, but the length-of-the field effort that started proceedings gets Try of the Weekend. Passing through Anthony Allen’s hands twice and including a gorgeous break from Matthew Tait, Adam Thompstone’s score lit up a dank, muddy day.
By Charlie Morgan