Provinces eye last-eight berths but injury toll mounts
Ireland are on course for all four provinces to make the quarter-finals of European competition for the first time. Munster started the run of wins on Friday night in Gloucester, and were followed by Leinster and Ulster yesterday in the Champions Cup, and Connacht in the Challenge Cup.
The only blot on the landscape, with the Six Nations around the corner, is the developing injury cluster at scrumhalf where currently Conor Murray is the only fit player of the top four. Kieran Marmion underwent surgery on an ankle in November and is not expected back until early next month, while John Cooney - with a back problem - was a late withdrawal yesterday from Ulster's home tie with Racing. Earlier in the day, Luke McGrath was carried off with a knee injury from Leinster's win over Toulouse. He hobbled out afterwards with his knee in a brace.
Leinster were bonus-point winners despite having five automatic starters on the injured list. They overwhelmed Toulouse in the second half and are warm favourites now for one of the four home quarter-final slots. They travel to Wasps next Sunday.
Munster are top of their pool but won't know until after this afternoon's tie between Exeter and Castres how they are fixed for qualification. Connacht, meanwhile, are trailing Sale only on points difference at the top of Pool 3 in the Challenge Cup. They beat the same opposition in Galway yesterday having initially run up a 17-point lead. They are away to Bordeaux in the last round next weekend and a win of any description will guarantee them a runners-up spot.
Ulster have not been in the quarter-final for five years but their win over Racing - beaten finalists last season - gives them a good chance of a runners-up spot going to Leicester Tigers on Saturday. Yet again Jacob Stockdale was the hero, wading in with two tries.
"This is a massive performance for us and a massive achievement," he said. "We're really pleased with how we played and to topple a top French side like Racing is something special."
It was a fraught finish for Ulster who had to survive a disallowed try, for a forward pass, before getting over the line.
Earlier in the day Leinster, with four titles to their credit, squared off with Toulouse, the only other side with those sort of stats. It was a huge performance from the home side.
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"I thought we managed possession quite well for long periods which nullified some of the threat that they have when we have the ball," Leo Cullen said. "You can see how dangerous they are at different stages, particularly Kolbe with his try at the end. They've a lot of pace, so managing to wear them down, you hope to get a bit of pay then later in the game. I thought we saw that midway through the second half when we get a bit more pay off the back of that.
"It takes a bit of sting out of them as well. Even though the scoreboard wasn't moving forward very quickly in the first half, it was good to get a couple of scores. We were a little bit unlucky on a few other occasions, I thought, but overall we're pleased with how the game unfolded."
Sunday Indo Sport