Heineken Cup - Quarter-Finals
Munster and Leinster set up dream all-Irish tie
April 12, 2009
Leinster's Jamie Heaslip celebrates his side's victory over Harlequins at The Stoop © Getty Images
Mike Brown Felipe Contepomi Rocky Elsom James Hook Paul O'Connell Brian O'Driscoll Ronan O'Gara Paul Warwick
Munster and Leinster will face off in an all-Irish Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park after a roller-coaster day for Irish rugby.
Munster booked their place in the last four thanks to a 43-9 thrashing of the Ospreys at Thomond Park while Leinster showed remarkable nerve and defensive prowess to shut out Harlequins 6-5 at the Twickenham Stoop.
Munster celebrated their 100th Heineken Cup match with a vintage display of all-round excellence on their way to a 43-9 hammering of the Ospreys at Thomond Park.
A virtuoso performance from fullback Paul Warwick, including a try and two exquisite drop goals, steered the hosts to a well-deserved victory in front of a vociferous home crowd with a brace of tries from centre Keith Earls and another from skipper Paul O'Connell hammering home their dominance. Fly-half Ronan O'Gara weighed in with 17 points as Munster outclassed their Welsh rivals to book their 8th semi-final appearance.
Ospreys were on the back foot for much of the game with some excellent defensive work in the opening period keeping them in the contest but in the end they only had three James Hook penalties to show for their efforts.
Predictably it was a fast and furious start with Munster cranking up the pressure early on but it was the visitors who were handed the first opportunity when the hosts were penalised at the breakdown - but Hook pulled his kick wide of the posts. Back came Munster with David Wallace going close to scoring only for the Ospreys' Andrew Bishop to get under the ball to deny the score.
Wallace went close again with a powerful pick and go from the scrum but the home side settled for an O'Gara penalty when the visitors strayed offside. They handed the Ospreys an immediate chance to reply and Hook found his range to level the scores. But they had little answer to the Munster pressure and O'Gara made them pay with another three from straight in front. Hook responded by snatching at penalty chance midway through the half and his side's task was made all the more difficult when flanker Filo Tiatia was yellow-carded for a late hit on Warwick.
However, a similar offence by Donncha O'Callaghan on Ospreys scrum-half Mike Phillips allowed Hook to level the scores. Not content with the tit-for-tat exchange, Munster opted to step things up when handed another penalty chanceand O'Gara's quick tap reaped rich reward. Livewire Warwick shrugged off a tackle from Alun Wyn Jones in midfield, stepped Bowe and dived through the last tackle of Hook to touch down for the opening try of the game which was converted by O'Gara.
Lifeimi Mafi and David Wallace combined to go close again before Ospreys scrum-half Mike Phillips cleared long but back came the ball courtesy of a superb Warwick drop goal from fully 45m to delight the home support.
Munster picked up where they left off following the re-start but it was Hook who notched the first score of the half with another penalty that was soon cancelled out by O'Gara. Munster were soon pressing again with Doug Howlett driving deep into the Ospreys 22 before the ball was recycled to skipper Paul O'Connell who was not going to be denied from a metre out.
There was yet more woe for Ospreys just a minute later with Warwick dropping an even more impressive goal from just inside his own half to cement his claims to the Man of the Match honour. Hook's off-day with the boot continued with another wayward penalty on the hour mark which went a long way to summing up the region's day.
Sensing blood, Munster surged forward again and a moment of magic from Mafi, drawing two tackles before offloading behind his back, put Keith Earls in for an easy score that O'Gara converted. And the centre had two tries in a minute, claiming the ball from the re-start before racing down the touchline to dot down in the corner despite a last-gasp tackle from Phillips. Again O'Gara nailed the conversion to set the seal on the win.
Tony McGahan praised the attitude of his double-chasing Munster side, commenting, "It's unmatched. With experience and age profile of the players, they realise they need to make the most of every opportunity and they're certainly doing that at the moment."
In the day's second quarter-final, Harlequins welcomed Nick Evans back to their No.10 jersey after injury, while Leinster included their full contingent of Ireland Grand Slam-winners. Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D'Arcy and Rob Kearney all started in the backs and Jamie Heaslip anchored the scrum at No.8.
Both sides flew out of the blocks, precision taking a back-seat to some confrontational tackling. Quins centre Jordan Turner-Hall's powerful pressure on Felipe Contepomi lead to a first penalty attempt for Evans but the Kiwi uncharacteristically missed his shot at goal. Evans' opposite number made no mistake with his first chance, Contepomi slotting an elegant penalty after Quins' lock James Percival was penalised for not rolling away.
Quins produced the first long spell of possession as the half-hour mark approached, going through multiple phases under the Leinster posts. The Irish province's defence was magnificent, Chris Whitaker snuffing out the danger and winning a penalty to relieve pressure that was building to fever pitch.
Quins lost Nick Easter to the sin-bin just before half-time, the England No.8 illegally clearing the ball after a superb chip and break from O'Driscoll. Contepomi slotted the kick for a 6-0 half-time lead.
Leinster started strongly with Easter in the bin, Isa Nacewa putting Brown under pressure early on before Contepomi and Fitzgerald conspired to send Kearney over in the corner, only for play to be called back for a forward pass. Quins were rocked by the loss of Evans to a knee injury after 47 minutes but found a foothold in the game when Contepomi was sin-binned for a professional foul as Chris Robshaw looked to collect a chip close to the Leinster line.
Leinster looked to have seen off their period with ten men thanks to some superb ball retention and intelligent play from stand-in fly-half Nacewa, but an excellent turnover from Mike Ross and a chip and chase from Danny Care granted Quins a five-metre scrum after Fitzgerald had carried the ball in to his goal-area. Quins rumbled on through their forwards, and the Leinster defence held firm until Gary Botha had an effort held up over the line.
Contepomi was restored by the time Quins had the foresight to use their backs, the ball finally spun wide after multiple phases for Mike Brown to pick an angle and score a crucial try. Chris Malone missed the conversion, leaving Leinster with a one point lead. Malone's game ended minutes later due to injury, meaning that winger Tom Williams came in at fly-half.
Mike Brown stepped up to take a long penalty as the game entered the final phases, his kick short and wide, before Evans dramatically re-entered the fray as a blood replacement for Williams. With Evans restored, Quins went for the winning drop-goal, but when the time came his heavily strapped leg could not find the killer blow. When Robshaw knocked on close to his line the final whistle rang out, setting up an all-Irish semi-final at Croke Park to cap Ireland's Grand Slam year.
Leinster coach Michael Cheika admitted his players were "broken" following their physical encounter. "We showed a lot of character to defend that lead being pinned down in our territory for so long," he said. "Maybe we didn't show a lot of accuracy but there was a lot of character against a quality side. This is a tournament we really want to win. It will now be a massive challenge against the best team in Europe."
Heineken Cup Semi-Finals:
Munster v Leinster (May 2, Croke Park, KO 5.30pm)