Last weekend Munster and Leinster earned themselves home quarter-final places in the Champions Cup
Connacht narrowly lost out to Toulouse despite a brave fight against the four-time champions. Ulster came up short again as they lost at home to Bordeaux-Begles.
Unfortunately Leinster drew the short straw when the semi-final draw was made. If they manage to beat Wasps in the quarter-final, they will face the winners of the match between, favourites for the cup, Clermont Auvergne and three time winners Toulon, in France.
Munster have a slightly better draw, if they beat Toulouse they will face either Saracens in Ireland or Glasgow in Scotland. At least the Irish provinces were kept apart and could theoretically meet in the final in Murrayfield.
Last Friday evening Leinster fought out a dogged battle against a resolute Castres team who had little more than pride to play for. Leinster took an early 10-0 lead but were surprised by the resilience of the Frenchmen who led going into the final quarter. Dan Leavey scored the crucial try that earned the draw and a home quarterfinal against Wasps.
Leinster looked in control until Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa were both forced to leave the field through injury. The Irish province palpably lost direction and control after these withdrawals and Leo Cullen must be concerned with the lack of leadership in the team outside of these key players.
From an Irish point of view Sexton is looking very injury prone and has had to leave the field through injury in his last four starts. Paddy Jackson is playing well but given the injury to Joey Carbery, beyond Jackson only Ian Madigan can provide adequate cover and Joe Schmidt has persistently ignored Irish players who have gone overseas to ply their trade.
On Saturday Madigan had a fine game at fly-half for Bordeaux, including one outstanding try-saving tackle on Tommy Bowe which saved the game for his team. There are no serious alternatives at ten for Schmidt and it seems likely that he will have to make use of Madigan at some stage during the Six Nations given Sexton’s susceptibility to injury.
Even if Ulster had won they would have failed to qualify for the quarterfinals, but their set piece was destroyed by the Frenchmen. Unless they can improve their first phase possession percentage they will struggle to qualify for next year’s top tier of European rugby.
Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and Paddy Jackson fought bravely but they were working with limited possession and Coach Les Kiss has some serious homework to do if Ulster are to turn their season around.
Munster comfortably beat Racing 92 in Paris just two weeks previously and most observers expected the French Champions, with nothing to play for but pride, to roll over and allow Munster an easy ride. It was anything but an easy ride and Munster had to dig deep to pull off the win.
CJ Stander is growing in stature with every match and he seems to have a monopoly on man of the match awards. He was outstanding in a back-row that performed to the highest level.
Peter O’Mahony must come into Schmidt’s Six Nations plans, he is playing at the peak of his powers. With Heaslip and Stander automatic choices in the National team only the open-side berth remains available in the backrow. Sean O’Brien’s involvement must be in doubt given his persistent injury worries and Josh van der Flier has had two quiet games for Leinster, so despite not being a natural openside Schmidt may be tempted to play O’Mahony at seven.
Another candidate for Irish consideration is Munster winger Andrew Conway who is playing superbly at present. He is exceptionally fast and is an excellent defender, having played much of the season at fullback for his province. He laid on the final try for Ian Keatley, taking out three defenders and deftly passing inside to his substitute fullback.
Munster will face Connacht’s victors, Toulouse in their home quarter-final. The French team will not relish facing Munster at Thomond Park. They had great difficulty in disposing of a resolute Connacht in Toulouse at the weekend. Connacht needed to lose by no more than seven points in order to qualify. Despite being out-played for most of the game, the Westerners almost pulled the game out of the fire in the dying minutes, with Toulouse clinging on to a nine point margin for dear life. Connacht kept striving to score a try when the more pragmatic option of a drop goal might have been a better choice.
Elsewhere in the competition Clermont will host Toulon in a repeat of the 2013 decider in Dublin, while Glasgow’s reward for a first appearance in the quarter-finals is a daunting away trip to reigning champions Saracens. European action takes a three month break now as the Six Nations takes centre stage.