Updated at 16.02
DEFENDING CHAMPIONS LEINSTER exited this season’s European Cup at the pool stage on Sunday, becoming the first champions to exit at such an early stage since Wasps in 2008.
Leinster – who have won three of the last four European Cups – had their fate sealed when fellow Irish province Munster beat Racing-Metro 29-6 in Limerick to deny them one of the two best runners-up spots available for the quarter-finals.
Munster finished level on points with Leinster but edge them on tries scored.
Montpellier are guaranteed one of the two runners-up spots and Munster will join them depending on the result of the game later on Sunday between two-time winners Leicester and four-time champions Toulouse.
Munster got the perfect start to a match where they needed a bonus point to keep their hopes alive of reaching the quarter-finals as their opponents had flanker Antoine Battut sent off by Wayne Barnes in the fifth minute for kneeing Keith Earls in the head.
However, it took the hosts 20 minutes to go ahead as scrum-half Conor Murray went over from five metres out — Ian Keatley, standing in for the suspended fly-half Ronan O’Gara, converted to make it 7-3.
The hosts added a second three minutes afterwards as Ireland wing Simon Zebo rounded off a superb move, started by a devastating run by prop Dave Kilcoyne, but Keatley missed the conversion to leave it 12-3.
Munster ran in a third try through Mike Sherry – and could have had a hatful more before half-time but former All Black Doug Howlett’s effort was ruled out by the video referee and Earls was just beaten to the ball in the dying seconds of the half.
Zebo it was who guaranteed the crucial bonus point as, after good work by Felix Jones, the 22-year-old tapped the ball through and outpaced the Racing covering defence to touch down with the cries of ‘Zebo Zebo’ ringing out.
Zebo, son of a Mauritian former French Army soldier and much sought after by Top 14 sides in France, sealed his hat-trick as Earls fed the ball to him and he ran it in from just a few yards out to repeat his feat from last season’s final pool match against Northampton.
The pool’s other match saw English side Saracens top the table as they thrashed Edinburgh 40-7 with England wing Chris Ashton running in two of them and his international team-mate Owen Farrell kicking 15 points.
The result left Edinburgh with the sorry record of six defeats and no points having failed to garner even a bonus point just a season after they reached the semi-finals.