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Roll on the Heineken Cup semi-finals

'Fantastic' says Coughlan

AS the dust settles on yet another barnstorming Heineken Cup quarter-final weekend, and as players, coaches and supporters alike catch their breath, the road map to the tournament semi-finals in less than three weeks’ time has been drawn.
First up on Saturday, 26 April is the meeting of Saracens and ASM Clermont Auvergne at Twickenham Stadium. The Aviva Premiership leaders will be looking to go one better than last season when they fell at the same hurdle at the same venue, while Clermont, who are appearing in a third successive semi-final, will no doubt be motivated by their agonising defeat in last year’s decider.
The following day (Sunday, 27 April) sees reigning champions, Toulon – gunning for a fourth European final in five years – taking on Munster Rugby at the atmospheric Stade Velodrome in Marseille in the second of the semi-finals. The game will mark Munster’s 11th appearance in a Heineken Cup semi, eclipsing the record the Irish province had held jointly with Toulouse.
And on the subject of Toulouse, the four-time champions came to Thomond Park for the first time in their illustrious history last weekend with high hopes of knocking Munster off their perch only to find themselves on the wrong end of a truly storming home performance.
In front of a packed house, Munster piled on the pressure right from the off and wound up scoring six tries on their way to a rampant 47-23 victory. CJ Stander came off the bench to replace the injured Peter O’Mahony during the first half, and on his 24th birthday, the former South Africa Under 20 captain produced an outstanding performance to deservedly earn the Heineken Man of the Match award. Meanwhile, Ian Keatley’s assured 17 points moved him to the top of this season’s scoring charts on 79 where he is currently level with Toulon’s Jonny Wilkinson.
After Munster had powered their way into the last four, it was the turn of Clermont to attempt to preserve their astonishing unbeaten record at Stade Marcel-Michelin and that they duly did with a 22-16 victory over Leicester Tigers.
Ahead 19-7 at the break, it appeared to be plain sailing for the home side, but Leicester were typically defiant during the second half and with Owen Williams impressing at No 10, they could well have snatched the game during a ferociously competitive closing quarter.
In the end, Clermont held on to register win number 75 at Marcel-Michelin and book their semi-final place at Twickenham where Saracens will try to halt the French club’s march to a second successive final.
If Clermont were well and truly under the cosh in the dying moments, it was nothing to what Saracens had to endure at Ravenhill where Ulster were reduced to 14 men in the fifth minute following the sending-off of full back, Jared Payne, by referee Jerome Garces.
Fired up by a raucous home support, Ulster somehow contrived to lead 9-5 at the break, and even though they also lost Rory Best and Ruan Pienaar to injury, they almost managed to turn the game around in a nerve-shredding final play before Saracens emerged 17-15 victors.
By dint of a 3-0 try count, Sarries deserved their success, and with Scotland captain, Kelly Brown, coming off the bench to make his 50th Heineken Cup appearance, Chris Ashton caught the eye once again with two tries to move him up to a total of nine for the season so far. The flying wing is now within touching distance of the tournament individual record of 10 tries in a season set by Sebastien Carrat of Brive in 1996/97.
Last, but by no means least, the Heineken Cup roadshow continued on to Stade Felix-Mayol in Toulon where the champions moved a step nearer to winning back-to-back titles with a 29-14 success over Leinster Rugby in front of their deliciously partisan fans.
At 6-6 at the changeover, Leinster were in pole position to capitalise on Jonny Wilkinson’s first-half exit due to a hamstring strain, but Toulon’s sheer physicality, combined with a master class at the breakdown from Steffon Armitage, simply wore the Irish province down.
The game marked the end of the European line for one of rugby’s most gifted players, Brian O’Driscoll, who bowed out of the competition with three Heineken Cup winner’s medals, 33 tries and 87 appearances to his name.
While O’Driscoll reflects on a stellar career in European club rugby, this season’s tournament rumbles on via the semi-finals later this month to what promises to be a magnificent conclusion at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on 24 May.

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