Mouth-watering: Leinster and Munster may meet in semi-finals
Ulster are given the carrot of a ‘home’ semi-final at the Aviva Stadium
Munster’s Peter O’Mahony punches the air after scoring his side’s fourth try against Edinburgh at Thomond Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
There was a little something for all three Irish provinces still standing in the Heineken Cup, with the main beneficiaries perhaps being Ulster, as the knock-out route to the Millennium Stadium final on May 24th was outlined yesterday. In the other half of the draw, Munster and Leinster could meet in the semi-finals.
On foot of securing a home quarter-final at Ravenhill against Saracens with Saturday’s superb win away to Leicester, Mark Anscombe’s team were given the carrot of a ‘home’ semi-final at the Aviva as the winners of that tie will host Clermont or Leicester.
Munster secured a home quarter-final against Toulouse by dint of their 38-3 bonus-point win against Edinburgh, but the draw, which took place afterwards in Thomond Park, pitted the winners of that tie away to Toulon or Leinster.
Their away semi-final could yet be at the Aviva, which would mean a reprise of the Leinster-Munster semi-finals of 2006 and ‘08 at the old Lansdowne Road and Croke Park. First though, Leinster must overcome the reigning European champions, which will probably be in Toulon’s Stade Felix Mayol home, with an increased capacity of 15,000-plus, with Leinster entitled to 25 per cent of the tickets. Were Toulon to secure a home semi-final against Munster or Toulouse, it would be staged in the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles.
Leinster will be meeting Toulon for the first time ever, an ironic eventuality given their unsuccessful pursuit of Seán O’Brien and continuing pursuit of Jamie Heaslip, which is not expected to be resolved for a few more days at least.
‘Beat the best’
Matt O’Connor commented: “I know from the mentality of my players that they want to be tested against the best and ultimately if we are to progress in this competition then we have to play and beat the best and I am confident that we have the capabilities to do that.”
O’Connor would not be drawn on a possible clash with either Munster or Stade Toulouse. “Look, of course the draw will get fans and media talking but we can’t control that. All that we can control is our own performance away to Toulon. If we get over that considerable hurdle we will have plenty of time to talk about a potential semi-final then and I am sure Rob (Penney) will say the same.”
The door had been inched ajar for Munster by Zebre restricting Toulouse to just one try on Saturday, ensuring a bonus-point win would earn a lucrative and advantageous home quarter-final. Of the 68 quarter-finals to date, 51, or exactly 75 per cent, have yielded home wins.
After Munster had completed their task, it was left to Clermont to secure a bonus-point win at home to Racing. Had Clermont fallen short of the fourth try, it would have meant a Munster-Leinster quarter-final at Thomond Park three weeks after the Six Nations and a week after the pair met at the Aviva in the Rabo Pro12. Judging by the cheers which greeted the tries by Gerhard Vosloo and Vincent Debaty in the 60th and 67th minutes to secure Clermont’s bonus point, not even the packed Munster Supporters Bar in the main stand wanted that.
Emerging from the weekend with a home quarter-final against Toulouse was a result. “One of the things we did speak about was our magnificent supporters who follow us around Europe and support us everywhere we go, and for the lads it was a small reward for them to be able to come and watch us at home, for the season ticket holders to come and watch them play here rather than having to get on a plane and travel. So it’s massive, really.
‘Is a cauldron’
“Thomond Park is a cauldron and a difficult place for any team to come and play and to have that opportunity to play one more European Cup game on our home ground is great,” said Rob Penney.
Remarkably, given they are the competition’s most regular participants in the knock-out stages and have both been ever presents, it will be the four-time winners’ first ever appearance in Limerick. They have met three times before, Munster winning the 2000 semi-final in Bordeaux by 31-25, Toulouse winning a home semi-final in 2003 by 13-12, before Munster claimed their second crown in the ‘08 final in Cardiff by 19-16.
“Look, another chapter in the marvellous Munster European championship book,” said Penney. “Any team coming here, well, it’s just fantastic for us to host them and we’ll just have to see what they bring.”
The one blemish was the sight of an in-form Keith Earls being helped off with a knee injury, and although Penney played down its seriousness it’s liable to put Earls out of Ireland’s game against Scotland. “He’s got a sore knee, probably short term. It will take a week or two. He’ll get a scan tomorrow when he goes to international camp.”
Ulster will be seeking revenge for last season’s 27-16 defeat to the same opponents at the same stage in Twickenham, but their primary source of joy was earning a cherished quarter-final at their impressively revamped Ravenhill rather than a third quarter-final in a row on the road.
“It will also be great to welcome Mark McCall, with his strong connection with the province as both a player and coach, back to Belfast for the game,” said David Humphreys.
“Last season we were hugely disappointed with the way we performed at Twickenham against Saracens. Now we have the opportunity to lay those ghosts to rest.”
At 16/1 to win going into the weekend, Ulster are now 6/1 behind Clermont (9/4) and Toulon (3/1), with Leinster at 7/1 and Munster 8/1. It’s a heavyweight last eight, featuring six former winners with 13 cups between them.