No quarters given
Stuart Barnes looks ahead to one of his favourite weekends of the year - the last eight of the Heineken Cup.
Last Updated: 06/04/09 11:39am
My head is spinning; I don't know whether to look back to some of the weekend's vital results or forwards to one of my favourite weekends, the Heineken Cup quarter-finals! Let's do both and let us start with the champions of Europe, Munster.
I did not get a chance to watch this one live what with a pretty busy working day in the Guinness Premiership, but early Sunday evening - having avoided the results page in the newspaper - I settled down with a smooth Burgundy and my Sky Plus to watch Munster take on Leinster... or should that read dismantle Leinster?
Can there be a more horrible experience than having to eke out a result when Munster is in the mood. There is no more miserly team in the world than this lot. They give nothing, absolutely nothing, away. Arguably the best defensive provincial side in the world, they have also developed an extra element in attack. There may still be a few Super 14 teams with more pyrotechnic attacks but few with a better all-round game - and none with a greater spirit.
Quite simply they look the most complete team in Europe. This does not mean they will retain the Heineken Cup because sport has that habit, like life itself, of throwing up the unimaginable. The Ospreys winning in Limerick is not unimaginable but I am damned if I can see it happening. Munster looked worthy favourites for this year's competition on the evidence of my Sky Plus evening of rugby.
But where does it leave Leinster? Where they have been for much of this season... stronger on paper than they look on the pitch. Again, Felipe Contepomi found the dark arts of Munster impossible to counteract which is a serious concern for the Dubliners because earlier in the afternoon, across the Irish Sea, Harlequins had produced a rather clever impersonation of Munster to leave Bath with a comfortable win.
Harlequins, steered by England's manager of the year, Dean Richards, were too organised for Bath, too strong at the scrum and too clever at the breakdown. Bath had most of the territory and possession but once they blew their early try scoring chances, the London side looked the likelier winners.
Richards' team has a game capable of frustrating the opposition and much more. We didn't need to see the much more on Saturday but with Nick Evans a probable starter, the magic is ready and waiting. Do not be surprised if we are talking about a Munster versus Harlequins semi-final this time next week.
Leicester appear strong favourites to beat Bath at the Walkers Stadium but this fixture has a dynamic all of its own. The Tigers are undoubtedly in much the better form but Richard Cockerill has to navigate his team to the best 15, which is not easy when neither of the national side's half-backs should be in that 15.
It is easier for me to write than the manager to select, but this will be a test of his strength of character. If the Tigers get this wrong it will hurt the club and his hopes of becoming head coach.
The Tigers will miss the raw aggression of Julian White and Bath will be revitalised up front by the return of David Flatman. The evidence of the eyes from Saturday may not count for much next Saturday. Elsewhere Bath are desperate for the rugby brain and quick passing game of Michael Claasens. The side's slump has coincided with his injury. He is arguably the most important man in their side.
The two sides have enjoyed two outstanding Premiership matches to date this season and while the immediate past makes a Leicester win the most likely outcome, do not write off a thrilling finish.
That leaves us with the first of the four quarter-finals and maybe the most enticing of them all. Cardiff Blues have been superb in this competition to date and have capital advantage against Toulouse who beat them in France at this stage last season.
It would be major shock if Cardiff Blues were to succumb as easily as a year ago but other than that, what can you predict? The Blues will be physical, organised, quick and strong; David Young will have them ready; but what about Toulouse? They rampaged at the weekend have one of the best packs in Europe and a celestial back three.
Nicky Robinson will have to kick quite beautifully and Gethin Jenkins will need one of his finest games in Blue but both men are capable of doing just that. Toulouse are not as likely to combust as they once were; they have a fall-back game that is limited and effective if the muse determines not to travel.
I make them narrow favourites but this is another game where anything can happen. How many days to go?
Now to this week's mail...
Stuart answers your emails
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Hi Stuart, just interested on your thoughts about Julian White's sending off for Leicester at the weekend. I may be a Leicester fan but I like to think of myself as impartial! Can you explain to me why Andrew Sheridan recieved no punishment for throwing a punch and White was sent off for landing a retaliation blow? I personally thought a yellow apiece would be fair. If White threw a punch from nowhere then fair enough he gets a red! If you also compare this to earlier in the season where White pulled a man off the back of a maul and punched him in the face unprovoked (think it was the Ospreys game but may be wrong about that) and he only received a yellow for it. Basically I am saying the red was harsh this weekend where it was previously deserved, what are your thoughts on a) this weekend's incident, and b) referee consistency with sending offs, particularly involving punching? Obviously we dont want it being a major part of our game! Cheers, Ed
STUART SAYS: I will say this about officiating, Ed. If a player is struck first the instigator should nearly always receive the same punishment. There is nothing more frustrating than to see someone react to violence, intimidation, cheating etc. and be the one to cop all the punishment. There is a world of difference between an unprovoked and non-provoked act and for people to prissily say 'there is no excuse for this or that' I would say there are times when a finger is in a man's eyes or a hand around his private parts, the ONLY sane thing to do is to react with extreme aggression. To punish the provoked and not the provoker is a victory for cynicism and a defeat for the good name of referees - and I genuinely think England has a pretty good standard of officials.
CENTRE OF ATTENTION
Dear Stuart, I have often wondered where our centres are! As England have the largest number of rugby players, why do we not have a Striling Mortlock, Jauzion or Basteraud? (ie physically imposing centres) My thought is that, players of that stature in youth rugby always head for the back row, meaning we have a lot of talent there, as is currently the case in my opinion. I would be interested in your thoughts! Lester Culley
STUART SAYS: Lester, Andy Farrell is a big centre, there is Ayoola Erinle, James Downey is a powerful Irish perfomer for Northampton - one day Ireland might consider his solid game - and there is.... I may be missing someone or a few but your point is a fair one. But surely centres with ability don't want to be forwards, should it not be the other way around? Perish the thought that the glamour of the game is wrapped up in those giants up front! Maybe that is it, a forward culture in Britain and Ireland... any help?
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