Monday, 8 April 2013

Heineken Cup Quarter Final Review

The wind has blown over since the unbelievable tournament that was the RBS Six Nations and it's back into domestic action or should I say European. I'm a firm believer in the fact that this is the one tournament that not only reaches the intensity of International but also matches the southern hemisphere in power and general speed of play. I enjoy the Aviva and Pro12 don't get me wrong but the standard of competition differs on not only the sides but the occasion. Even the French league struggles and it's the strongest league in the northern hemisphere. What I saw on saturday and sunday combined was a complete rugby fest in terms of pure enjoyment and skill. Let's be frank there was no Welsh interest in the draw, that dream ended a while back but yet I still gave all 4 games a shot. Here's a short review of all 4 ties with emphasis on my favoured side Clermont Auvergne. 

Clermont Auvergne 36 Montpellier 14 (15-9 HT)

Clermont for me have been the most impressive all tournament, they do the basics well and once you do that you're well on your way. They have the perfect balance which all coaches strive to pluck, Leinster have had it, Munster of old, Toulouse etc. It all starts up front if you can get your pack going forward you've won half
the battle. Add that to a solid and experienced second row and an impressive combative back row you got yourself a machine right there. The fireworks are provided behind the pack, this is possible by the fact C.A have key players in key positions which can often decide a game. First you want someone to boss the game in the form of Morgan Parra, then you want someone to throw the ball too when you need a go to ball, In Wesley Fofana they have perhaps the most gifted center in the northern hemisphere who can always spark something out of nothing, going down a colder sack is something the man just doesn't recognise. If he can't work his magic you can bet his partner Aurelien Rougerie will take the easy option into contact, simple things, simple result. The back three is the epitomy of power and pace and with added effect accuracy. 

With an All Black on one side and a Fijian powerhouse on the other, all aided by a fullback exiled by Wales in the form of his life. A recipe for success. Once this machine is oiled and in motion there are hardly any teams in the competition that will hold them down. This game was interesting because Montpellier didn't actually play bad in fact quite the contrary they did everything they could have in this game and still come out with a hammering. They took the lead through a few penalties and it looked like a suprise was on the cards but the home crowd at Parc Des Sports Michelin started whipping up a frenzy and all of a sudden despite being dominated in territory and possession they turned the game on it's head. Doing that so easily is a trait that a team has to build not just develop. It could have perhaps been a closer contest had Francois Trinh-Duc made it through the game but an early injury once 9-3 up seemed to knock the confidence out of a pack which was bullying the home side and then it turned. Easy as that, well actually it was. 

Two quick tries knocked the wind out of Montpellier with Fofana and Rougerie going over but yet still only leading 15-9 at half time, the assault was relentless. Sitiveni Sivivatu ran in a wonderfully creative try on his own something the players inside of him would have been proud of before Lee Byrne also crossed. A late consolation for Montpellier from Timoci Nagusa was just the game's way of saying it's over. Also nothing more than they deserved. Montpellier are a young upcoming side with plenty of potential this result will benefit them in the long term. For Clermont surely this has to be their year?

Player Watch: Lee Byrne - Solid/Efficient/Simple

Saracens 27 Ulster 16

Here is a result which well can't say we didn't expect but how comfortable it resulted was the most suprising. Ulster last season were unbelievable home and away just got on with the job. Marshalled by their influential number 9 Ruan Pienaar. This time it was a measured controlled performance by Mr Reliable on the Saracens side, Young Owen Farrell displayed the composure that we associated him with during the internationals. For Ulster it was another haunting memory of the same ground they lost out in the final last season to Irish rivals Leinster. Pienaar had a particularly off-key night especially at goal which is normally his most reliable asset. It began as a kicking duel between the two 10s but the first try of the night went to the classic rolling maul and Will Fraser crossing, a superbly executed move. One for the big boys here. Ulster normally great with ball in hand came up against a side well drilled in defence, not even the impressive dancing Craig Gilroy could breach, being penalised whilst close to the line. 

Then came a moment of brilliance from two players who really struggled to create as of late, Brad Barritt holding the ball well and sliding an inside pass to Chris Ashton and he really was away, this is the trademark from the man we are so used too. Where had it all gone?, A superb individual effort something this weekend has made a theme so far. For Saracens this kind of result shows that they have the capability to compete at the top end of Europe this season but for Ulster a damaging blow to their ambitions. 

Player Watch: Chris Ashton - Found his Form, clinical.

Harlequins 12 Munster 18

I said to a few of my friends that this one was a banker for Harlequins, purely on the fact I saw Glasgow absolutely pick apart Munster in the PRO12 recently, that was a real reality check by the looks of it because I could never have seen this result coming. Munster are the best at what they do, they grind out games, they always have that little bit of composure which other sides lack at this level. Harlequins had a huge English contingent who should have been riding high after their Six Nations exploits and Munster many of their internationals having troubled times and their captain not having played a great deal of rugby. It had all the ingredient for a home win but the fire still burns within the Irish province. 

This was a classic case of the boot prevailing with all 30 points coming from Nick Evans and Ronan O Gara combined yet the battle for nutrition in this game is what makes it so compelling, the returning Paul O'Connell was inspirational and mesmeric all in one and put his name firmly among the rest for the Lions Tour to Australia in the summer. He really was the stand out leader here, inspired a whole team, check out his post match interview for pure emotion. He was the difference between both sides, the disappearance of Chris Robshaw will worry selectors mind. 

Player Watch: Paul O'Connell - Brave, Fearless, Inspiring, Menace

Toulon 21 Leicester Tigers 15


For me the tie of the round, pure attrition and intensity was only matched by the sheer atmosphere down in Toulon. Watching through my TV was intimidating I dare to think how it was actually being there in person. The pre-match war cry embodied everything that's so great about rugby. The pre-match anticipation was worth the entrance fee alone surely?, You could hear the big hits and the constant aggression all the way throughout. Leicester started really well as well which was suprising considering Toulon wanted to put down a marker here. Toby Flood was giving his own taste on the master versus the pupil sub plot and kicked them into a 9-0 lead which they were well worth. Then as it has all weekend, momentum played a key part in turning the game, Flood got a yellow for a deliberate knock on and suddenly it was all Toulon for nigh on 20 minutes and the pressure told with Leicester being forced to concede 6 kicks at goal all by penalties.

Toby Flood's sin binning was a crucial time in the game and allowed the momentum to switch completely after that, he returned to kick his side to within try reaching difference but you always had that feeling that Toulon had enough control and sheer player quality to see it out. Indiscipline was crucial with Flood and later on Dan Cole recieving yellow, it's tough at any level let alone the top. For me the turning point was Tom Croft coming off before half time, it coincided with a Flood missed penalty and you could see the confidence just drain from the Tigers. Some staunch defending made the result look closer than it could have been. Toulon struggled to fizzle in attack but that was also down to great line defence by the English contingent. Leicester are in the same situation as Montpellier in the other tie their side is young and will learn from this experience and will be better from it. In essence both sides played their part in this unbelievable match and will definitely hold their heads up high in this one. Also a great learning point for Toby Flood from someone who has been there and done it all, but also great recognition and deserved success for Jonny Wilkinson who let's not forget wanted to hang his boots up at the end of the season, just rewards for a brilliant player and person.

Thanks for reading
Take Care

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