The good, the bad ... and the French
January 13, 2014
Saracens had no answer to Louis Picamoles and Toulouse's power © Getty Images
There is just one round of Heineken Cup action left before we embark on the knockout stages and the quarter-finals are taking shape. The weekend's action saw six teams qualify for the final eight and Monday Maul looks back at the key talking points.
Getting over the line
With six teams in the pot for the quarter-finals, the make-up has a blue and green tinge to it. From Ireland - Munster have booked their annual spot in the quarter-finals with Ulster joining them. Both are flying under the radar when potential winners are discussed, but they have plenty of talent in their ranks and both are capable of doing some real damage in the tournament.
And then there are Clermont, Toulouse and Toulon. Alongside the Irish and French contingent are the Tigers. Qualification is a fantastic effort from Richard Cockerill's side - they have had a horrible run of injuries this year, but regardless of the personnel in their team, they have an inherent belief which serves them well.
The Ospreys; so often the team you feel will do the best out of the Welsh regions but their efforts have paled in comparison to the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues in the Heineken Cup this term. The Blues have knocked over Toulon this season while Scarlets have gone to Paris and beaten Racing Metro alongside their win over Harlequins at the Stoop. Little rays of light are breaking through the deluge of politics engulfing Welsh rugby, but the Ospreys are still off-colour. Up until the start of their match against the Saints, Dan Biggar was the only man who had scored points for them this term in the Heineken Cup. They did okay against the Saints but were still left on the losing side. It is a poor return.
The weekend's awards
The good, the bad and the overpaid
This weekend we saw the best and worst of French rugby. First the better side of the tricolour enigma - Clermont, Toulon and Toulouse. They were at their best in matches against their respective opposition, but they had that added drop of punch and a ruthless streak. For Toulon, Andrew Sheridan added a physical presence from which the rest of their team could pivot with Jamie Cudmore and Alexandre Lapandry exerting quiet authority for Clermont. And Toulouse, so often a frustrating side as they never seem to quite get the most out of their incredible squad but they powered past Saracens with Louis Picamoles putting in a heroic performance. Any one of them, if they get their game plan right and get some confidence and cohesion, could go all the way.
But then on Friday evening, we witnessed a limp performance from Racing Metro, home to four British & Irish Lions. That assessment is not meant to do a disservice to the Scarlets, they were well-deserving in their win, but Metro have been abject in Europe this term. Montpellier also changed most of their team for the game against Ulster, robbing the supporters of a true contest.
O'Connell simply the best
His body may be getting that little bit more creaky and the toil of the battle may feel that little bit worse the following morning, but Paul O'Connell is still brilliant. He was the difference between Munster and Gloucester on Saturday and with his contract up at the end of the season, it is understandable that a host of France's top teams are circling him while Munster are desperate to keep hold of their man. The Irish province's coach Rob Penney was lavish in his praise of O'Connell post-match.
"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."
The dire Challenge Cup
What will London Irish have learned from their 79-3 hammering of Lusitanos XV on Saturday? Little. The public are also fairly disinterested with just 4174 rocking up to the Madejski Stadium to witness the destruction. It was a similar tale in Newcastle on Thursday evening as Brive beat the Falcons 9-7 in an absolute stinker of a match with 2650 watching.
The Amlin Challenge Cup only gets interesting when the Heineken Cup rejects enter the tournament at the quarter-final stage which makes the five Challenge Cup pool winners' efforts seem trivial. The tournament needs an overhaul, maybe stripped down to bring in a third tier to make it a touch more meritocratic than the current box-ticking exercise, to make it more competitive.
Scottish getting their house in order?
As neither team has been mentioned as contenders for the Heineken Cup knockouts, Glasgow and Edinburgh's wins flew under the radar. But the Warriors' triumph at Exeter was impressive as was Edinburgh's dismantling of Perpignan. They are still prone to their odd rogue result in the Heineken Cup and PRO12 but maybe, just maybe, those north of the border are re-building and finding some consistency - factors that can only benefit the national side.
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.