Monday Maul
The wonderful Ruan Pienaar
Tom Hamilton
January 20, 2014
Ruan Pienaar was just sublime © Getty Images

We now know the make-up of the quarter-finals in the 2014 Heineken Cup and there are three sides from Ireland, three from France and two from England who have made the final eight. At times the pool stages were underwhelming with conservative rugby filled with 'tactical' kicking taking precedence over free-flowing backs play, but the four quarter-finals all look fantastic ties and should provide some oval-ball solace after the culmination of the Six Nations.

Heineken Cup Knockout Stages

  • Quarter-Finals:
  • Ulster v Saracens
  • Clermont Auvergne v Leicester Tigers
  • Toulon v Leinster
  • Munster v Toulouse
  • Semi-Finals:
  • Ulster/Saracens v Clermont/Leicester
  • Toulon/Leicester v Munster/Toulouse

Although there were just two quarter-final spots up for grabs in the final round of the Heineken Cup pool stages, there was no shortage of talking points.

Putting the boot in

On Friday night, Ian Evans was rightly shown a red card for his two stamps on the head of Mike McCarthy. The Leinster lock was lying prone on the turf as the studs mercilessly dented his already well-scarred forehead. Come Saturday, Brad Barritt was in a similar, defenceless, position to McCarthy and he too was on the wrong end of a shooing, this time from Connacht prop Nathan White.

Incredibly, after a lengthy spell where referee and TMO exchanged sweet nothings over whether contact was made with Barritt's head - the world and his wife saw there was - they decided on a yellow card. Social media went into meltdown as Leighton Hodges was castigated for a rogue decision.

Going to the TMO is not a private matter, with the all-intrusive method of modern day sports coverage, anyone who was watching the coverage from their living room could listen to their exchange. There was the footage of White's boot making contact with Barritt but then there was the conversation asking whether such an event had occurred. Sometimes referees are criticised for imposing the law of the game too rigorously, but this was an occasion when the rule book needed to be thrown.

The wonderful Ruan Pienaar

Sport needs its heroes; individuals still put bums on seats. There are some who create moments of magic which cause involuntary reactions from the crowd where spectators find themselves clapping opponents who have just produced the impossible. What follows is usually a slightly embarrassed giggle, but they are box office occurrences. But there are other players who do their job in a quiet, efficient manner but are match-winners. They are more valuable than those who offer flash-in-the-pan brilliance.

Ruan Pienaar is one of the world's finest scrum-halves and few can rival his game management. On Saturday, at Welford Road, he was the difference between Leicester and Ulster. He nailed his kicks from the tee but it was his nudges from hand which kept the game ticking over. His box kicks were perfectly judged, he was in the right place at the right time to charge down Toby Flood - it wasn't a fluke, it was carefully judged - and he was the worthy recipient of the Man of the Match gong.

Heineken Cup winner will be wearing white

At the start of the season, the two favourites for the Heineken Cup were Clermont and Toulon. At present, with neck on the block, the winners of the tournament will be either Clermont or Ulster. If the province can bottle their performance against Leicester and continue in the same vein come the quarters and semi-finals, they will be in Cardiff come May. Clermont, who are coming to the end of an incredible generation, will want to get the trophy for coach Vern Cotter. They are the teams to beat at the moment and whoever wins that potential semi-final, will win the tournament.

The Weekend's Awards

  • Player: Ruan Pienaar
  • Team: Gloucester, great win away at Perpignan
  • Coach: Mark McCall
  • Quote: "Fortunately Brad wasn't injured but that shouldn't be a determining factor" - Mark McCall on the stamp that avoided a red
  • Try: Jonny May's solo effort against Perpignan, incredible skill

Toulon show their ugly side

Despite Toulon's Heineken Cup triumph last year, there are still some doubts over their backbone. They have the ability to blow teams away but on Saturday in the rank conditions in Glasgow, defence formed the basis for their win. Jonny Wilkinson slotted the points but Toulon's defence was superb, no more so than in the last few minutes of the game. Glasgow put together wave after wave of attack but Toulon repelled everything that was thrown at them - an impressive display of concentration and organisation.

At the centre of it was Juan Smith who made 18 tackles, without missing a single one - Steffon Armitage also made 17 while Wilkinson displayed his body-on-the-line attitude once again making 15.

The Warriors find some tooth

You can forgive Dean Ryan on Saturday night if he cracked open a dusty bottle of red, put on his old, tattered tracksuit bottoms, kicked back on the sofa and exhaled. Okay, their win on Saturday in the Amlin Challenge Cup had come against Oyonnax in a dead-rubber of a match, but it was Worcester's first win at Sixways since March. It must have been a rare emotion for the Warriors who have had a dreadful season but those of a black and gold persuasion will hope they see similar results in the Aviva Premiership.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.

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