Gerry Thornley: Now going gets tougher for Leinster and Munster
Leo Cullen’s men host champions Saracens while Toulon travel to Thomond Park
Munster’s Simon Zebo scores a try against Castres at Thomond Park. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Leinster and Munster cannot meet before the final after yesterday’s results contrived to leave them in opposite halves of the knock-out stages in the European Champions Cup. They each have home quarter-finals, but will be faced by Saracens and Toulon – the two clubs that have won the last five trophies between them.
Munster’s 48-3 bonus point win in their delayed Pool 4 finale against Castres at Thomond Park elevated them to third in the last eight seedings, so earning them a quarter-final against Toulon at the same venue on the last weekend in March.
Ulster’s 26-7 defeat against Wasps in the Ricoh Arena knocked them out of the competition, and also granted a lifeline to Saracens. The back to back champions will now face Leinster, most probably in the Aviva Stadium, which doesn’t seem like much of a reward for Leo Cullen’s men as the only side to progress through the group stages unbeaten.
Although the draw for the semi-final rewards away winners, at least Leinster have given themselves a chance of also hosting a semi-final in the Aviva. Should they beat Saracens and the Scarlets beat La Rochelle, Leinster would have home country advantage, whereas if La Rochelle won, the semi-final would be played in France.
On the other side of the draw, if Munster progress, they are resigned to being in France, as either Clermont or Racing would have home country advantage, but in qualifying for the knock-out stages for a 17th time, Munster had achieved their primary goal, a tenth home quarter-final.
“I’ve read a bit about quarter-finals and home teams are in a very good spot to win it,” said van Graan. “Obviously with the home crowd, just to experience again tonight what happened out there, the noise level, the way the people of Munster stick to this group of players and this team. Obviously it’s a lot easier to play at home.
“Imagine if we’d had to go to La Rochelle or Toulon. I don’t want to sound too clever. I’ve only been here a few weeks so it will be my first quarter-final, but I’m very, very happy that it’s at Thomond Park.”
Having thanked the players, management, ground staff and supporters, van Graan also saw a home quarter-final as a deserving reward for the home crowd.
“I got a bit of goosebumps before the game when the team ran around the field. It seemed a lot louder than before, and we knew this was going to be tough but once the team got momentum they got an extra few gears and I’m very happy about the home support.”
The unscheduled three-hour delay contributed to a slightly surreal and poignant day, in which Limerick said goodbye to another icon, Dolores O’Riordan, with tracks by the Cranberries played before kick-off, at half-time and post-match. A track on each home match day hereafter would be apt.
The deferred 4pm kick-off due a slightly flooded pitch did not effectively alter the picture for Munster, even though Racing beat Leicester at Welford Road in the interim. Anything less than victory would mean elimination, while a win would secure a quarter-final and a win with a bonus point would ensure a home quarter-final.
However, as events transpired in Pool One, by early in the second half a win of any hue would have sufficed to earn Munster a home quarter-final.
They had already managed the three-hour delay, during which time the squad returned to their hotel and van Graan actually asked the players to switch off from the match as the management adapted the game plan for a dryer pitch. Hence, although the management were aware of the reduced target, van Graan said they were not of a mind to upset Munster’s increasingly effective rhythm at the start of the second half.
“Once we started moving forward we said whatever happens now we will take whoever comes to Thomond Park. But I was still nervous until we hit the 40-point mark because rugby is a very strange game but I was aware [that a bonus point was no longer required] and all credit to the players. We said ‘let’s stay in our bubble as team and what happens on the field we will adapt and manage that.’ I thought they did it brilliantly.”
Leinster could afford to sit back and enjoy watching yesterday’s events unfold knowing they had secured top seeding going into the knock-out stages courtesy of their 23-14 win away to Montpellier on Saturday, and so they will seek to become only the second team to lift the trophy with a perfect nine wins from nine.
The net effect was to give themselves the chance of a home semi-final, and so should they beat Saracens, they would be at home if the Scarlets also won.
Leo Cullen commented: “The challenge doesn’t get any easier against a Saracens team looking for three Champion Cup titles in a row. They’re well coached under Mark McCall and have an array of English and foreign talent at their disposal and they’re showing good form in Europe and in the Premiership. They’re the top try scorers in both competitions so we’re under no illusions as to the task ahead.
“It’s a while away yet but great to know who we have and we can start planning. It’s a challenge that we very much look forward to and I know the Leinster supporters will respond in kind to make it a brilliant occasion at the Aviva.”
Connacht’s 50-14 win over Oyannax sealed a home quarter-final against Gloucester in the European Challenge Cup, but as third seeds as they were unable to secure a top two seeding. Hence, if Connacht beat Gloucester, they will be away to the winners of the Newcastle-Brive quarter-final in the semi-finals.
Connacht owe Gloucester one, to put it mildly. Three seasons ago Gloucester beat them 14-7 at the same stage at Kingsholm, and again at the same venue in an ensuing Champions Cup qualifying play-off tie by 40-32. Connacht were leading 25-18 in the final minutes of the game when a hugely controversial penalty decision from Romain Poite gave Gloucester a try-scoring opportunity and sent the match to extra time.