Irish treble still in sight
Published 16/01/2011 | 05:00
Leinster book knock-out berth as Ulster edge Biarritz
THE morning papers had spoken of a prospective weekend of triumph for Irish club rugby. Three provinces planting feet firmly in the cherished land of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
That prediction began to look optimistic with three minutes remaining at Ravenhill yesterday with Ulster and Biarritz locked together at 6-6, a situation which would have seriously damaged the home team's chances of reaching the knock-out stages for the first time since 1999.
Then Ian Humphreys stepped up with a dramatic winning penalty and, to the relief of their rain-sodden supporters, Ulster had maintained a solid enough grip on their own destiny. The result left them locked with Biarritz on 17 points and created a series of intriguing possibilities for the final round of games next week.
Ulster travel to face Aironi on Saturday knowing they can clinch automatic qualification if they secure a winning bonus point and Biarritz fall short in their final game at home to Bath. The imperative for Brian McLaughlin's side, though, is simply to win the game at a venue where Biarritz themselves came undone. Four points would ensure a total of 21 for Ulster and they would be desperately unlucky if that wasn't enough for a coveted spot in the last eight.
"That's the biggest win Ulster have had since I've been here," said delighted prop Tom Court. "It means everything to us but unfortunately the job's not done yet. We're still neck and neck with Biarritz. We've still got a bit to go and although everyone is overjoyed and over the moon with today, we can't start celebrating or getting too far ahead of ourselves."
Head coach McLaughlin spoke with a sense of relief and pride that his team had come through a testing afternoon. "Our defence for about 10 or 15 minutes half-way through the second half on our own line was unbelievable," he said.
"We've talked long and hard about the trust we have in each other and there's no better example than that."
Leinster left no room for doubt at the RDS, running six tries past Saracens in a 43-20 rout that ensured their safe passage into the quarter-finals with a game to spare. They head for Racing Metro on Friday, knowing that Clermont cannot peg them back from pole position, yet mindful of the fact that there remains the bonus of a home quarter-final to fight for.
They were forced to take the field yesterday without Gordon D'Arcy, who picked up a calf injury on Friday night, but it is not expected to rule him out of Friday's game, for which Jamie Heaslip is anticipated back as well. Leinster made light work of their absence yesterday, running in three tries in either half, never looking in danger for any appreciable length of time.
"It was nice to come through," said Sean O'Brien, who delivered a man-of-the-match performance. "We started well and kind of kicked on from there. We're pretty happy with the result because we knew they'd come back strong and they did. It was very windy out there and it was a pretty good performance considering the conditions. We had said during the week that we needed to be positive out there and we were. It was pleasing to win in front of that incredible support again."
This afternoon Munster are in France to play Toulon, knowing they really need to win if they are to maintain their long, impressive streak of reaching the quarter-finals, a situation that looks tailor-made for them. "What odds an Irish treble?" it was asked yesterday morning. Looking good, you would have to say.
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