There will have been big celebrations in the Emerald Isle after this weekend’s Heineken Cup Round 3 games – with all four provinces picking up big wins!
At the halfway stage in the group Pool 1 is virtually settled – the Ospreys are out of it and Leinster are almost certainly going to qualify – and probably with a home tie for the quarter finals.
Ospreys put up a fight down in Castres but had to settle for a losing bonus – gaining only their first point in this campaign.
What was supposed to be the heavyweight match was at Franklin’s Gardens where Northampton took on Leinster. Leinster began as Ireland had done a couple of weeks ago against the All Blacks – only this time they didn’t let the opposition back into the game in the second half. With O’Driscoll pulling the strings a try bonus point was in the bag before half time and they are looking the best side so far in the competition – and in one of the toughest groups.
To say Northampton were poor is to flatter them – they will need a huge game next week in Leinster to try and restore some pride but it looks like their campaign is likely to be over.
In Pool 2, Cardiff have put themselves in with a chance by disposing of Glasgow Warriors and denying them even a bonus point. Both sides scored two tries but it was Leigh Halfpenny’s kicking that made the difference.
In the other game the Champions Toulon arrived at Sandy Park with a starting line- up that boasted over 850 international caps. But Exeter are no respecters of reputation and they fought the Galacticos from France every inch of the way. In the end they fell just short losing 14 – 9. It will be tough for the Chiefs down in Toulon next week but their spirit and adventure will serve them well as they try to make sure they are still in with a shout in the last 2 pool games
On paper Pool 3 matches looked a foregone conclusion and Saracens duly went to Zebre and came away with the expected bonus point win.
In Toulouse however there was one of the big upsets in Heineken history when Connacht defeated the mighty French side 16 – 14 and in the process threw the pool wide open. Only one point separates the top 3 sides and next week’s return game in Ireland will be huge.
Saracens are likely to top the group after the next round but this pool will still remain undecided until the last two games are completed.
Harlequins had so far lost both of their opening games and needed something special to give them even a slight chance in Pool 4 – they may not qualify but they were more than competitive at Racing Metro where they took the home side apart and landed themselves a bonus try win. Racing weren’t quite as poor as the Saints were against Leinster – but it was pretty close and despite the inclusion of Lions Mike Philips and Johnny Sexton they were very much second best.
Clermont put away Scarlets and now top the Pool with 10 points – 3 ahead of Quins who have leapfrogged into second with the others a further point behind. It is not over yet – Clermont have 2 away fixtures left and like a number of French sides they are not always the best of travellers.
The matches in Pool 5 went as predicted – Ulster comfortably winning in Treviso and Leicester triumphing at Welford Road. Both winners picked up a bonus point but whilst Ulster strolled home the Tigers were made to fight all the way against Montpellier.
Leicester came out of the blocks like Leinster and raced into a comfortable lead of 24 – 3 by the 15th minute thanks to a try from Niki Goneva and a brace by Miles Benjamin.
It looked all over and the Tigers would have been home and hosed if they hadn’t butchered a further try with the line open. But Montpellier suddenly found that they too could run wild and two tries brought them back to 24 – 18 at the break.
In the second half the bonus try from Gibson coupled by Flood’s kicking took them out to 35 -18 as the clock passed 65 minutes.
But still the French side were not done – Rene Ranger and co were rampant and with just a minute to go their fourth try took them to 38 – 32. An unlikely win was possible but they were denied an additional losing bonus point by Ryan Lamb’s last minute drop goal.
The final Pool saw Munster back on top with a good win against notoriously bad travellers Perpignan.
The French side were good in patches and suffered at the hands of the TMO – but in reality Munster outplayed them for most of the game.
The other match saw Gloucester get themselves back into contention with a surprising win up in Edinburgh. They will need to repeat the result next week at Kingsholm to give themselves an outside chance of qualification – they may well come to regret not getting a bonus point after having scored three tries with 35 minutes still left on the clock.
It was an exciting weekend of rugby – but the real plaudits have to go to the Irish – Munster, Leinster and Ulster top their groups and Connacht are only the one point behind Toulouse and Saracens.
Next week promises to be fierce with several teams expected to face a backlash as the underperforming sides try to get back into contention.
I’ll be previewing the weekend later in the week.