So, Quins into the quarter finals of the Heineken Cup, as top seeds, after the last round of matches this weekend. They slugged it out with Biarritz on a swamp of a pitch in south west France, Friday night, and came away with a 16-9 victory. 100% record, but not without a few scares, mainly against Connacht, the up and coming province in Irish Rugby. A home tie in the quarters guaranteed against one of the two best second-placed teams. Easy?
Er, no. the privilege of playing Quins came down to a battle between the mighty Munster and the even mightier Leinster, between them winners of the tournament five times in the last seven years. Both going through something of a transition, as some of their great players retire or near the end of their careers, but both still formidable. Leinster needed a bonus point away to Exeter on Saturday, which they duly managed. That meant Munster needed the same on Sunday against Racing Metro, a top French team, but with no interest left in the competition. Munster did the business, which meant they got the eighth QF slot by dint of scoring one more try than Leinster over six games. Blimey, I bet there were some celebrations in Limerick! And bemusement in Dublin. Leinster not qualifying for the quarter finals. Unheard of. I think they can put it down to the (bad) luck of the group draw, ending up with Clermont Ferrand, the team of the moment, stuffed with French and other internationals, and favourites to win this season.
There was a real battle, too, in the snow yesterday between two giants of the game, Leicester and Toulouse. Winner takes all. You wondered why the authorities didn’t have a fluorescent ball for a game when the ball spent a lot of time being kicked for territory on a snowy white field. It was a grim struggle. Toulouse had the possession, but kicked their penalties so abysmally that Leicester snuck through 9-5. Their reward, an away tie at Toulon, another powerful French team, featuring our greatest rugby icon, Jonny Wilkinson, at fly half. Rejuvenated, refreshed, on the Mediterranean coast. Who isn’t?
So, some heavy duty ties in the quarters, to be played in April, after the Six Nations internationals take centre stage over the next couple of months. Toulon v Leicester, Saracens v Ulster, Clermont v Montpellier and Quins v Munster. Last time Quins played Munster was away in the semi finals of the Amlin Cup, the secondary European tournament, the season before last. It was away, in the fortress that is Thomond Park, Limerick. Our expectations weren’t that high, but the boys played one of their greatest games and came through. It was the turning point, for a team which still hadn’t totally conquered the self doubt when it came to the crunch games. They went on to win the final in Cardiff against Stade Francais and haven’t really looked back. Getting better and better.
Shouldn’t tempt fate. Munster are an experienced team who know how to win these knock out games. It will be very tough. And if we win, it will get tougher still: away to Clermont or Montpellier. Which probably means Clermont who NEVER lose at home.
But there’s a first time for everything. If Quins can get past Munster – and what an atmosphere that will be at the Stoop – they will believe they can do it. It will be an epic clash. The best of France v England. Bring it on!