Sport Rugby

Friday 23 February 2018

Munster on the march

Penney's men join Ulster in last eight

Paul O'Connell, supported by team-mate Tommy O'Donnell, takes on Gloucester’s Sila Puafisi during last night’s Heineken Cup game at Kingsholm
Paul O'Connell, supported by team-mate Tommy O'Donnell, takes on Gloucester’s Sila Puafisi during last night’s Heineken Cup game at Kingsholm

MARIE CROWE

Munster and Ulster are through to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and both teams will go into next weekend's final round of pool games in search of a home tie.

Munster's hugely impressive 20-7 victory in Gloucester last night guarantees they will top Pool 6 and there was no doubt in the mind of Gloucester coach Nigel Davies about the main difference between the teams: "Paul O'Connell is phenomenal," he said.

"There are certain characters in teams that have a huge influence and effect. It is not just his ability as a rugby player, it's how he galvanises the team, and his sheer presence is a huge factor for Munster."

Davies' sentiments were echoed by Munster head coach Rob Penney, who added: "Paul is just such an amazing character, and at this level of the game you wouldn't want anyone else out there, really, guarding your ship."

"It was a great match of huge intensity," added Davies. "That level of performance from us was an absolute must in terms of intensity and intent, and I was really pleased.

"There were elements of our game that we were not accurate enough in, such as our lineout and finishing, but they are in our control. Munster were fantastic defensively. We threw everything at them, but they kept us out.

"Munster have got this inner belief to come through tight encounters. They would have felt under the cosh today for large periods with the way we went after them, but that belief is deep within them."

O'Connell himself was more low-key: "It was a very satisfactory result but I think there are a lot of things to work on," said the man of the match.

"Gloucester did everything they could to beat us today. I thought they played some great rugby but we were very patient in our defence and soaked up a lot of pressure and full credit goes to our boys for that.

"I think we made a lot of good decisions today and the ruck and the breakdown are a massive part of the game," added O'Connell. "I think it was a very tough game and we are going to have to recover well now over the next few days. Edinburgh are a coming team, they are a really tough team to beat. We saw their performance here just before Christmas when on a dirty night they beat Gloucester. They beat us well in Murrayfield in October, it's going to be a tough game for us. We have to reset now and start at zero and do our best to try and get a result next week."

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Although victory for Munster may not be enough to guarantee a home draw, Ulster will travel to Welford Road on Saturday knowing the prize for victory over Leicester, who are also guaranteed a last-eight spot, will be a quarter-final at Ravenhill.

Toulon and Clermont have also progressed following wins yesterday, meaning there are just three quarter-final spots left. Leinster still remain well positioned to take one of those, but will need to avoid disaster in France today when they take on Castres.

A win for the Irish province would complete another clean sweep weekend for the home teams after Connacht saw off the challenge of Zebre in the Sportsground with a 20-3 win.

Mathematically Pat Lam's team are still in contention to advance, but Toulouse will be looking to take control of Pool 3 when they welcome Saracens to the south of France today. Connacht then face a daunting trip to Saracens in the last round.

However, the win over Zebre means that in their third season in the competition they have, with a game to spare, their highest ever points total. This was Connacht's seventh straight win over Zebre in a game which they largely dominated.

Lam, however, was disappointed with his side's overall performance and their inability to bag a bonus point, which could be vital for their qualification hopes.

"I am happy with the win -- you don't take wins lightly in European rugby -- but I am also pretty disappointed," he said.

"The outcome is great because we got the win, but ultimately we were not clinical enough, and had so many opportunities right across the board that we didn't take."

Irish Independent

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