Awesome Leinster lead Irish charge on Europe
The prospect of Ireland getting three teams through to the knock-out stages of Europe for the first time has never been better after four rounds of the competition, despite Munster coming up short against the Ospreys.
Leinster were awesome in their 24-8 demolition of Clermont Auvergne to take control of Pool 2, while Ulster are very much in the hunt thanks to their 26-22 win in Bath.
For all three, their qualifiaction fate is still in their own hands.
Leinster's impressive record against French opposition in Europe stretched to 17 wins from 20 games in these match-ups, and in the process they played first-class rugby that was both accurate and highly intense.
"What a relief -- I couldn't ask for a better Christmas present," said Joe Schmidt. "I could have hoped for a bonus point with 30 minutes to go, but to keep them from getting a bonus puts us 5-4 on the head to head. We're going to have to work hard to get out of it. You saw what Saracens did to Racing. I'm relieved and delighted. The way the players threw themselves about, they were pretty generous with their bodies."
Munster's defeat at the Liberty Stadium opens up Pool 3 again, where Toulon take over leadership thanks to their massive bonus point win over London Irish. The result leaves Munster needing to win their last two games -- away to Toulon and at home to London Irish -- to be sure of qualifying.
In a feisty game, where the citing commissioner may well have had a busy night, the power of the Ospreys scrum was critical but at least Munster are ahead on the head to head thanks to a superior try count.
"We came out the other side of a lot of decisions at scrum-time," captain Denis Leamy said. "It was another disappointing aspect of the game. It's an area where we have improved greatly this season, and I think possibly today was a step backwards unfortunately.
"I was relieved they didn't score at the end. We did our very best to hold them out, but a losing bonus point is not a whole lot of comfort at this stage. I think we have to win both games that are left in the group."
Ulster put themselves back into strong contention in Pool 4 thanks to their third win over Bath in 12 months. A second-half try from Nevin Spence was the clinching score in a strong second half by Brian McLaughlin's team. The result still leaves Ulster trailing Biarritz, who recovered from last weekend's shock to beat Aironi with a bonus point.
"We are just very happy to have a win," coach McLaughlin said. "In the first few minutes we looked a bit ropey but we clawed our way back to 14-13.
"Actually, I didn't think we played that well. Bath put us under ferocious pressure at times. We upped the intensity, though. We knuckled down and knew what we had to do. If we had control we had a chance. I said to the players afterwards: 'We've done nothing yet'. We've just got to keep winning."