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5 things we learned from the Heineken Cup quarter-finals

It was a rollercoaster weekend of rugby with plenty of ups in Thomond Park.

Quartet string up once more

IT’S AS YOU were at the top of European rugby. Though most have come through much different challenges to last year, the same four clubs that played out last season’s semi-finals are back for the 2013/14 edition.

A repeat final is also a possibility, though this time around it is Clermont who must overcome Saracens in Twickenham rather than Toulon who will host Munster in Olympique Marseille’s Stade Velodrome on April 27.

The quarter-finalists were only two names removed from last season’s last eight; Leinster and Toulouse coming back in in place of Harlequins and Montpellier. Ulster were the closest team to breaking the quartet and almost certainly would have done with 15 men.

Does it signal that the Heineken Cup is in need of a shake up? We would argue no.

Munster returning to stature, growing in confidence

It would be easy to look at the final 47 – 23 scoreline in Thomond Park and say, ‘Toulouse didn’t turn up, they didn’t fancy it’. However, while that attitude may have slipped into the four-time champions as the game wore on, they certainly didn’t look like a side who were going give Munster a guard of honour in the early stages.

Simon Zebo celebrates Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Munster began ferociously and attacked with a verve and tempo that they reserve only for the biggest tests in Thomond Park. Toulouse were undone after just five minutes, but only after they had defended the early onslaught manfully. They hit hard and contested breakdowns well until, after 20 barnstorming phases, Keith Earls found room on the outside.

For the second year in a row, they must head to the home of the competition favourites in the semi-finals, but although nobody wants to face the reigning champions, Munster will relish taking up an underdog tag in Marseille.

There are no fairytales in this competition

Like the ambassador with a pyramid of fancy nutty chocolate, the Six Nations really spoiled us this year. The international competition gave us a perfect ending that Vince Gilligan would have been proud of.

Brian O’Driscoll’s Leinster encore to that grand finale was cut short yesterday and Mathieu Bastareaud, his counterbalance in the world of number 13s, came out on top of their last tussle.

Rob Herring dejected after the game Rob Herring, who replaced the injured Rory Best after just 12 minutes, devastated after losing at Ravenhill. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

Last season, it was Ronan O’Gara who was denied the perfect ending. On Saturday night, the dream died not once, but twice for Ulster.

First, certain defeat was dealt their way with Jared Payne’s early red card. Then, after they set about winning the game minute by sapping minute they were forced to cope with defeat all over again in the final minutes. The stadium was up, Stephen Ferris was back, it was supposed to be the game when everything came together for Ulster, but instead they left thinking the world had just fell apart.

Technology can only take you so far

Fans of other sports continually look to rugby and commend its use of technology to assist decision-making. However, there are plenty of problems that exist despite the use of the TMO and their increased powers.

No matter how slow the slow-mo or how many angles, there is still a judgement call to be made on most decisions, particularly when the rules leave so much discretion to the referee.

With the aforementioned Payne red card Jerome Garces appeared to have almost too long to make the decision which shaped the rest of the game. Over six minutes elapsed from the moment Alex Goode hit the turf to Payne heading for the sidelines. Six minutes in which, it seems, that Garces had erased the real-time incident from his mind and instead decided the colour of the card on the slowed-down second of footage replayed over and over on the big screen and the length of the medical crew spent treating Goode.

Jared Payne tackles Alex Goode Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

There is no mention of intent in the laws of the game and Payne was undeniably careless by being so unaware of his surroundings while chasing Paddy Jackson’s Garryowen, but red cards ought to be saved for flying shoulders, spear tackles and eye-gouging.

Toulon the perfect side to make you feel inadequate

There is no shame in losing to Toulon. Bernard Laporte has put together an ultra-efficient band of highly-skilled, high-powered, highly paid and highly motivated players from across the globe.

It’s the manner of Leinster’s defeat which left their fans feeling so cold yesterday. It seemed as if each facet which had made Leinster a great side in the past three years was working against them yesterday. ‘Accuracy’ is what Jamie Heaslip said was missing and that just about sums it up because the A word has become a catch-all term for Leinster denoting good performance in everything from set-pieces to multi-phase attacking shape.

Juan Smith with his son CJ after the game Springbok Juan Smith celebrates by line-out lifting his son CJ. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With the score six apiece at half-time it seemed as if the visitors were about to put in a monumental effort to test Toulon’s mettle in a tight match. They had presented some brilliant defensive phases in their own 22 in the first half, but in the second they were pretty much bullied into conceding 10 points within five minutes of the restart.

Matt O’Connor’s side are still the runaway leaders in the Pro12, but whether it’s Glasgow, Ulster or Ospreys who go to the RDS for a semi-final next month, they will be feeling a little less trepidation about the prospect.

Murray gives ‘special mention’ to his forwards after armchair ride against Toulouse

Saracens defeat ‘will haunt Ulster players for the rest of our lives’

‘We let ourselves down’: Leinster left to bemoan absent accuracy in Toulon

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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