Munster live to stand up and fight another day as all roads lead to London


RUGBY:London calling. The quarter-final line-up of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals has pitted Munster away to English champions Harlequins and Ulster at the home of their former coach Mark McCall, while even Leinster have been re-routed to English capital via an Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final against Wasps.

The matches are liable to be scheduled over three or four nights on the first weekend in April, with venues to be confirmed possibly by the end of the week, after Munster’s 29-6 win over Racing Metro and ensuing place in the last eight as one of the two best runners-up – effectively at the expense of reigning back to back champions Leinster – was confirmed when Leicester beat Toulouse 9-5 at a snowbound Welford Road to evict the four-time champions.

Alas, the semi-final draw would have slightly dampened Munster’s spirits, as the winner of their tie with Harlequins will have to travel to France to play either Clermont, now the six to four favourites. As they would have feared, Ulster missed out on a home quarter-final by dint of Saracens’ five try, 40-7 win at home to Edinburgh yesterday, although they at least have the carrot of a home semi-final, most likely at the Aviva Stadium, as the winners of that tie will have home country advantage against either Toulon or Leicester.

Heavyweight flavour

With Toulouse and Leinster being re-routed to the Amlin Challenge Cup the secondary competition has a decidedly heavyweight flavour featuring four teams with 10 Heineken Cup wins between them as well as two sides, Stade Francais and Biarritz, who have each been two-time runner-ups.

Leinster have been given the same route as last year’s Amlin winners Biarritz, a quarter-final away to Wasps followed by a home semi-final, against either Gloucester or Biarritz, standing between them and a final at the RDS on May 17th, the night before the Heineken Cup final. They are now 11 to 10 favourites to win that competition, having been given a favourable route to that mid-May weekend in Dublin, just not the one they would have wanted.

Harlequins have the option of moving their tie against Munster to Twickenham, but will be mindful of virtually conceding home advantage, and are likely to want to keep the game at the Stoop, where the capacity of 14,800 could probably be increased to meet the ERC requirement of a minimum 15,000 capacity.

Swelled by their ex-pat support, the Red Army are reckoned to have numbered 5-6,000 for their pool game against Saracens at Vicarage Road in December. Thus, the 25 per cent share of tickets for the away team will likely place a huge demand on tickets.

Ulster’s demand is liable to vastly exceed supply as well. Yesterday’s game at Vicarage Road against Edinburgh was scheduled to be Saracens’ last at the venue, as they move into their new home of Allianz Park next month, and they will assuredly want to showcase their new arena for such a marquee game as the quarter-final. However, the stated capacity is 10,000, and Ulster will also be decidedly unhappy about the prospect of having to play on the Allianz’s 4-G, synthetic pitch, which has nonetheless been given IRB approval.

Looking ahead to their quarter-final away to Conor O’Shea’s English champions, Rob Penney said: “Harlequins are obviously doing great in the Premiership and earned the right to a home quarter-final by topping their group. They’ve got class right across the park. So my initial thoughts are it’s bloody tough to go over there and get a result, but if everything goes for us we can get a result. We’ve got to embrace it.”

Feeling the pressure

Having been feeling the pressure, and hence clearly relieved, he was asked of the consequences had Munster not qualified for the last eight. “Look if we hadn’t, obviously people would be in the long grass. There would be a lot of bullets being fired,” said Penney before reflecting on the missed chances away to Racing and Saracens particularly.

“We were a hair’s breadth away from doing some really good stuff against really good sides. If we hadn’t have got the outcome today, I would have still be very proud of the progress we’re making and the areas of growth that we’re getting.”

“So I would have had to put the flak jacket on probably, and the hard hat, but I’m happy to do that because I really believe in this team and the direction it is going. And you mention the importance of today’s result in getting into the quarters, I think all it does is probably it takes the pressure off me for a little bit longer.”

“But that’s why I’m sitting in this chair and I love it because we’re on a wee pathway to something pretty special, I think, with this group and if can’t have faith in it then I don’t deserve to be sitting here and if I get criticism and I can’t defend myself, then I shouldn’t be sitting here. So I think what it’s done is probably just bought some breathing space so we can continue on this path, hopefully.”

Munster achieved yesterday’s win without Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara for the first time in 106 Heineken Cup matches, dating back to before the turn of the Millennium. “We’re seeing massive growth in some of the guys who haven’t had a lot of exposure, and every week there’s great things happening within the group. A landmark performance today? You could certainly say we’ve sewn a seed, and it’s only germinating,” said Penney, adding: “I think it was a performance that was probably coming and it was great that it happened today in such a big game and in front of the Red Army, who were superb and really got us home today.”

So Munster have squeezed through again. But on top of the decision to keep the captaincy with Jamie Heaslip despite the return of Brian O’Driscoll, the Irish squad link up today with Munster having qualified at Leinsters expense.

Not exactly ideal.

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