Green with envy?
January 22, 2012
Catch me if you can: Munster's Simon Zebo evades Northampton's Ryan Lamb during their clash at Stadium:MK © PA Photos
Premiership Rugby may want you to believe that the success of the leading Irish provinces in this season's Heineken Cup is down to a favourable qualification process and what they see as a less-than-arduous PRO12 campaign but don't be fooled.
The path from the PRO12 to the European stage may not be as treacherous as that taken by the Premiership sides in terms of the number of qualification spots available and the lack of relegation may offer some enviable leeway when it comes to squad rotation but sides still have to deliver when it matters most. English sides have contested two of the last three finals and London Wasps and Leicester conquered Europe under similar qualification criteria so let us not let the Premiership's shortcomings overshadow an outstanding few months for some of the continent's other leading lights.
The presence of Munster, Leinster and Ulster in the last eight for the first time is a reflection of their dominance of this season's competition. Munster have swept all before them while Leinster also remain unbeaten as they continue their quest for back-to-back titles. History shows that no club since the inception of home and away fixtures in the pool stages in 1997-98 has won the Heineken Cup without losing a game in the competition and so at least one unbeaten record must go before this season's champion is decided at Twickenham on May 19. And Ulster, who can stand shoulder to shoulder with their provincial neighbours after an outstanding campaign, may well have a say in how that plays out.
Munster bounced back from last season's surprise early exit to book their place in the quarter-finals but their passage has been far from straight forward. Drama has been a near constant companion no more so than in the two clashes with Northampton that book-ended their pool campaign. A last-gasp drop goal from veteran Ronan O'Gara ensured they got off to a winning start but they arguably saved their best until last with an emphatic demolition of a strong Saints side on Saturday night. In between it took another late show to edge out Castres while narrow victories over the Scarlets suggest belief is strong among the men of Munster. They may be some way from the complete rugby machine with major question marks around the scrum arising from their most recent outing but that is not to say they lack physicality, far from it. Some of the faces may have changed since their last Heineken Cup triumph but talent still abounds with match-winners such as winger Simon Zebo clearly hungry for euro glory.
Ulster may have something to say about that having made it back-to-back appearances in the knockout stages and their date with Munster at Thomond Park will not be as intimidating for them as it may have been for many of the other title contenders. Boasting a formidable Irish-South African blend, Ulster may not have topped their pool - losing to both Clermont Auvergne and Leicester away from home - but they showed more than enough in their superb victory over the Tigers at Ravenhill and in their narrow defeat at against Les Jaunards in the latest round to suggest that Munster, beaten by Ulster in the league this season, will not be taking anything for granted. Neither side will be found wanting when it comes to motivation, but the prospect of a home semi-final for the winner is sure to add to the intensity although Ulster's Ravenhill may not make the semi-final grade when it comes to capacity.
Robbed of talisman Brian O'Driscoll through injury, Leinster took a while to hit their stride with Jonathan Sexton's 80th minute penalty required to snatch a share of the spoils in the opening round, but they were back at their full-flowing best against Glasgow in Dublin. However, it was on their return to Lansdowne Road, where they swept Bath aside, that it became clear that it would take something special to derail their defence of the title. They may well return to those surroundings for their last eight clash with Cardiff Blues. Five wins were not enough for the Welsh side to top Pool 2, with that honour falling to Edinburgh on a dramatic final day of pool action, but victories on the road against Racing Metro and London Irish give them hope ahead of a daunting trip to Dublin.
Saracens fly the flag for the Premiership as the only survivor from the seven clubs from English rugby's top flight that entered this season's battle. A nervy victory over Treviso on Sunday finally confirmed their place and they can look forward to home comforts in the last eight although that may be at their second home - Wembley Stadium - where they have won six out of seven games and which was the scene of arguably their most impressive showing so far against Ospreys. Sarries will be grateful they are not tackling quarter-final opponents Clermont Auvergne at the fortress that is the Stade Marcel Michelin. The Top 14 giants' latest euro success against Ulster was their 37th consecutive victory on home soil but their only win away from home was a demolition of Aironi and Sarries will prove a much tougher nut to crack. The winner of that cross-Channel showdown will lay claim to home advantage for their semi-final but a return to the Marcel Michelin looks unlikely with its 18,000 capacity some way short of the minimum requirement for the semi-final stage.
As is the norm come this stage of the competition, there are giants at every turn and they don't come any bigger than four-time champions Toulouse. But defeats at home to Harlequins and away to an eye-catching Gloucester suggests this talent-heavy Toulouse is not as dominant as that which last lifted the sizeable Heineken Cup silverware in 2010. Skipper Thierry Dusautoir was almost embarrassed on behalf of his side following the news that they had still managed to qualify but there is nothing like knockout rugby to re-focus the mind of his star-studded squad. While Toulouse will be on familiar territory in the last eight, their opponents Edinburgh grace this stage of the competition for only the second time. This season will live long in the memory of Edinburgh fans even if they do not upset the odds in the quarter-finals thanks to their epic victories over Racing both home and away and Toulouse will be hoping that is as good as it gets for the all-action Scots as they prepare to return to Murrayfield - the site of their 2005 Heineken Cup Final triumph over Stade Francais.
Heineken Cup quarter-final seedings:
1. Munster (Q - 25 points)
Heineken Cup quarter-finals: (To be played April 6/7/8)
Munster v Ulster
Heineken Cup semi-finals: (To be played April 27/28/29)
Saracens/Clermont v Leinster/Cardiff Blues
Final: Twickenham Stadium, Saturday, May 19 (5.00)
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.