After a dramatic weekend’s rugby, Munster are once again Ireland’s standard bearer as the Heineken Cup enters the knock out stages.
The pool stages that began on the 5th of December, came to a close last weekend and left just one Irish side – Munster – to go forward to the quarter finals on Easter weekend. It was a topsy-turvy section of the competition with Leinster Lions breaking fast from the traps, followed by Munster while Ulster, drawn in the toughest group, got off to a bummer with defeat in Rodney Parade.
So with three defeats on the road, Ulster were gone before the weekend’s action but they rounded off their campaign with a comfortable win over Gwent Dragons and resume their Celtic League campaign with a home tie against Llanelli Scarlets on Friday in Ravenhill. The Scarlets of course had that memorable win in Franklin’s Gardens to qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter final – like Munster – for the sixth successive season. Alan Solomons side put themselves on the hind foot when they lost that opener against Gwent and in truth never really recovered. They picked up a surprise bonus in the remarkable Ravenhill win over Leicester Tigers but undid all that good work when they were hammered in the return in Welford Road. In the penultimate pool game against Stade in Paris they went down by just three points (13-10) but such was the home side’s control in the final quarter that anything other than a win for Stade would have been larceny of the highest order.
The media reports over this past weekend were less than kind to a Leinster Lions side who many believed would atone for last year’s failure to reach the final. On the face of it, having bizarrely been seeded number one in this country, they looked to have a relatively handy pool and they began in impressive fashion with a maximum points haul home win over Biarritz and a good win on the road in Cardiff. Then the wheels came off against Sale in Lansdowne Road, but they got back on the straight an narrow in the return leg with a gutsy win and looked to have a quarter final place booked when they led 17-3 against Cardiff in Lansdowne Road. However, they somehow then managed to allow a 14 man, Welsh side back into the game and in the end were fortunate just to win, never mind collect the extra point that would have seen them through.
The rest as they say is history. Blitzed for most of the game against Biarritz they had no right to be any way interested as that game entered the final stages. But they had hung-in grimly and to their credit scored two tries in a do-or-die effort at the end. Unfortunately, it was a case of die rather than do, and the shame of it is that had they managed to scrape through, and had their injured and-ahem- ineligible players been restored to the squad, they would have been serious contenders for the title.
But forget of the clerical errors that cost them Contepomi. They could have survived that. Forget about what happened in Biarritz. That outcome should have been to decide seeding. Leinster lost their place with that home defeat to Sale Sharks. And the players can feel properly rightly aggrieved on two counts. First, by the decision at the end of that game when Malcolm O’Kelly looked to have scored a legitimate try. And secondly by the wisdom of those in authority in Leinster who opted to move from Donnybrook to play games in the cavernous Lansdowne Road.
Donnybrook in this side’s spiritual home. It always has been and Leinster’s Heineken Cup record there speaks for itself. It could be argued that had Reggie Corrigan’s side played their home games at ‘home’ they would almost certainly be in the quarter finals now.
And so Munster are yet again left to carry the Irish banner forward into the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup. For the sixth successive year they have managed to reach the knock-out stages and this time around will have home advantage. They sealed that particular aspect with a hard-earned bonus point in Thomond when a penalty try secured them a fourth try. The opinion that Tony Spreadbury’s decision was unfair has some substance. It should however be gauged in the overall performance by the French side. They lived offside all day, tied more laces in an afternoon than the entire Riverdance troupe does in a year and sank to the ground feigning injury with such regularity that one wondered would they be better advised involved in a less physical sport. In the end referee Spreadbury simply lost patience and had the score not come then it would have in the time that was left. Munster were never going to leave without it.