By Phil Rice
The qualifiers for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup were decided at the weekend, with Leinster beating a strong Montpellier team away from home and Munster overwhelming Castres in Limerick.
The two Irish provinces thus qualify as first and third seeds respectively for the knock-out stages. Leinster won all six pool matches accumulating an impressive 27 points in so doing and showing extremely impressive form.
Munster reached their seventeenth quarter-final, a record for the competition. Although Leinster are worthy favourites for the cup this year, a word of caution regarding their quarterfinal opponents.
Leinster would have been cheering on Ulster for a few reasons at the weekend, not least that victory over Wasps, for Les Kiss’s team, would have resulted in a Leinster v Ulster quarter-final as opposed to Leinster facing reigning champions and pre-tournament favourites, Saracens.
It was ironic that Leinster, who were the stand out team throughout the pool stages, have found themselves drawn against probably the one team they would have wanted to avoid.
In April, when the quarter- finals will be played, it is likely that a number of the Saracen players who have had long term injuries will have recovered.
While that match is a mouth-watering prospect to look forward to, Leinster would probably have chosen any other of the six qualifiers ahead of the Londoners.
Saracens are the only qualifiers from the English Premiership while France have the most qualifiers with four, Ireland with two and Wales with one.
Ulster led their pool going into the final round of matches at the weekend, but not for the first time they were desperately disappointing, against Wasps in Coventry.
Given the quality of the players at their disposal, the Northern Irishmen have been dreadfully inconsistent this season. Questions must be asked of both the management team and the players themselves.
To their credit Wasps, who had nothing to play for but pride, played some outstanding rugby in terrible conditions.
But Ulster, with everything to play for, unforgivably looked lack lustre from the start. Next season Jordi Murphy and Marty Moore will be joining their ranks, but it is their attitude that has been questionable this season and a change of management seems inevitable.
Leinster began their game with Montpellier without their first-choice half-backs, Luke McGrath and Johnny Sexton, who have been so instrumental in their success so far.
Despite this handicap they eventually dominated the star-studded French team. With Ruan Pienaar and All Black Aaron Cruden controlling things at halfback, Montpellier began well and were leading 14-8 at half-time.
Leinster took them on upfront in the second half and with Sean Cronin, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan to the fore, they gradually wore down the French team and tries from Robbie Henshaw and Cronin gave them a 23-14 victory.
A delighted head coach Leo Cullen was still cautious after the game. He said: “Getting a seeding of one or two is partly important but you can’t control the other games, you may have to travel to France again.
“It’s one of those things that people may start to talk about. Does that drain confidence? “At least you’ve got rid of that psychological barrier, because we’ve lost a few games in France in the past. We showed a lot of character today, which was pleasing, and controlled the game for good chunks of it.”
Aaron Cruden was impressed by the Irish team. He said: “I certainly think they’ve got the capability to go all the way but in saying that there are still quality sides out there.”
Munster were given some concerns when their opponents Castres, who had nothing to play for, gave them a torrid first 20 minutes, and the Thomond faithful, who had expected a straight forward victory, began to get concerned.
The match had been delayed by three hours as the ground staff drained the pitch after a night of torrential rain, and the French side began with intent.
Needless to say, the crowd got behind their team and the players responded with some exceptional rugby in atrocious conditions.
Man of the match Keith Earls showed he is raring to go for the Six Nations, with the first try, followed later by a superb break for a spectacular try for Simon Zebo.
The Munster pack dominated their powerful opposition and with two scores from driving mauls and a penalty try, following some impressive scrummaging, in the end Munster ran out 48-3 winners.
No opposition will look forward to a trip to Limerick in the latter stages. First up will be three-time champions Toulon, who were beaten by dark horses Scarlets at the weekend.
The Welsh outfit have begun to show the form which won them the Pro12 league last season, when they beat Leinster and Munster to claim the title.
They also have a home quarter-final, against La Rochelle. The stand out player for Scarlets has been Irishman Tadhg Beirne, who will be playing for Munster next season.
Connacht trounced French opponents Oyannax 50-14 to qualify for a home quarter-final in the Challenge Cup. Winger Niyi Adeolokun turned on the style with a hat-trick of tries, while Bundee Aki showed he is ready for his first Six Nations, with a try and an assist in three others.
Champions Cup Quarter-Finals
Leinster v Saracens
Scarlets v La Rochelle
Munster v Toulon
Clermont v Racing 92
Ties to be played between 29 March and 1 April.
Champions Cup Semi-Finals
Leinster Rugby/Saracens v Scarlets/La Rochelle
Munster Rugby/RC Toulon v ASM Clermont Auvergne/Racing 92