Champions ride their luck
Published 24/01/2010 | 05:00
Leinster hung on to their home draw in the Heineken Cup quarter-final by the skin of their teeth at Twickenham yesterday in a game of high drama that saw London Irish fall short just when it seemed they had been saved.
Jonny Sexton rescued the champions at the death with a stunning drop-goal within a minute of a Chris Malone penalty that appeared to have kept the Exiles in the competition.
So the 11-11 draw means Leinster top Pool 6 and await today's results where their place in the last-eight pecking order can be overtaken by either, or both, Biarritz and Toulouse.
At worst, Leinster will be fourth seeds which will see them play Clermont, Stade Francais -- or even Ospreys -- somewhere in Dublin. The issue of where that game will take place is still open, according to Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson.
"We'll have a board meeting on Wednesday and all options will be discussed," he said. "The most important issue is that we win the game [quarter-final] and we'll talk to Michael Cheika about where is best for that."
Given that IRFU chief executive Philip Browne already got clearance from Croke Park to play there if necessary during the recent weather crisis, GAA HQ will be looked at again as taking the game to a bigger stadium allows the home team to increase their share of the takings from 55 to 65 per cent.
Ulster's slim chances of qualifying for the first time since 1998/'99 came down to the wire thanks to their excellent win over Bath at the Rec. Stade Francais, however, managed to take a losing bonus point from Murrayfield, which took them through as winners of Pool 4.
Ulster's win was their first on English soil in the competition at the 12th attempt, and afterwards Brian McLaughlin tempered his disappointment at just missing out on qualification by emphasising the positives for his team.
"It's a monkey off our back," he said after the 28-10 win. "Today we are reflecting on the fact that we have won our first game in England. It's a great win from our point of view.
"We came out at half-time knowing that if we could turn the screw, with Bath down to 14 men, we had a good chance. Bath came back really well and put our defence under ferocious pressure and we couldn't seem to get our hands on the ball." Ulster's chances of entry to the Amlin Challenge Cup now hinge on today's games.
Those matches will complete Pools 2 and 4, but the identity of the eight quarter-finalists is already known and all that's left to be finalised are the seedings. The eight teams are: Munster, Biarritz, Clermont, Stade Francais, Toulouse, Leinster, Ospreys and Northampton. The last two will be the seventh and eighth seeds respectively.
Munster could yet be overtaken in top spot by Toulouse, who would need to hammer Sale while scoring eight tries in order to leapfrog Tony McGahan's side.
The exact quarter-final pairings will be known later today, while the draw for the semi-finals takes place in Paris this evening.
It has been the worst ever season for English clubs in their 13 years of participation in the premier European competition, with only one team -- Northampton -- through to the knock-out stages, where they will almost certainly face another away trip to Munster, in a repeat of Friday's game.
Connacht, meanwhile, completed their perfect pool campaign in the Amlin Challenge Cup with a massive win in Madrid to secure top seeding, and a home quarter-final berth.