Heineken Cup 2012-2013: Final Group Stage Review
The group stage's final round may not have had the excitement and great rugby of recent years, but there was no shortage of shocks.
The weather dictated that sides chasing tries had to contend with an extra defender, as the bitter cold made free-flowing rugby nigh on impossible.
In many ways it was a passing of the torch as two greats of Europe passed the baton to the new generation, though a couple of big-name sides limped into the knockout stages.
We now have an idea of how the knockout stages will play out, as eight sides battle it out for the right to play for European Rugby's biggest prize on May 18th in Dublin.
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Saracens welcomed Edinburgh to Vicarige Road knowing a bonus-point win would see them win a home quarterfinal, but went about winning the game before cutting loose late on.
Three Owen Farrell penalties and a Chris Ashton try saw them race into a 14-7 lead at the half. Such was the Sarries' dominance that it took a blunder for Edinburgh to register their only points of the game.
Ashton and Matt Stevens scored in the second half before a late Charlie Hodgson try sealed the bonus point, with Chris Wyles crossing late to add some gloss to the scorecard.
Munster also went into their game knowing exactly what they needed to do, and were further helped by Antoine Battut's fifth-minute red card.
They made heavy weather of an weak 14-man Racing Metro in the first half, but pulled away once the French side tired and lost interest, allowing Simon Zebo to run riot.
While Munster may not be the force of recent years, they are the only remaining side who have won the trophy in the last 10 years.
They will also be delighted to have qualified at the expense of bitter rivals Leinster.
Qualifiers: Saracens, Munster
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So long the aristocrats of Europe, Toulouse crashed out of Europe at the home of the Leicester Tigers at a snowy Welford Road.
50 tons of snow was removed from the pitch in the run-up to the game, meaning this was unlikely to be a free- flowing affair.
Toulouse showed up with a massive pack, but they were let down as both Lionel Beauxis and Luke McAlister left their kicking boots in France.
They missed five kicks between them, allowing the Tigers win a game they really had no right to, such was the dominance of the Toulouse pack.
The Tigers will have a host of big names back come the knockout stages, so it will be a difference proposition come April.
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Harlequins didn't need to win last Friday night. In fact, they would've won a home quarterfinal even if they failed to register a point.
But they wanted to make a statement, and make a statement they did, sealing their sixth win in six games.
Travelling with a strong side, Harlequins showed their intent and held off the French side in a game played in torrential rain.
While they favour free-flowing rugby, this victory showed they had a pack that could dog it out when they had to.
English glory was achieved last season. Now they clearly have their eyes on European glory.
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There's a saying, "if it's not broken, don't fix it," that would have served Ulster well. Instead, they tinkered with a winning side and it cost them a home quarterfinal after they limped to a win against Castre.
Paddy Jackson's fitness was in doubt. But if he was fit enough for the bench, he was fit enough to play. The decision to move the imperious Ruan Pienaar from nine to 10 backfired horribly.
Pienaar struggled on both sides of the ball, dropping a couple of passes before being caught out horribly for Castres' breakaway try.
In a physical affair, Chris Henry put in a massively impressive performance in an injury-depleted pack.
Jackson's arrival steadied the ship and Ulster were finally able to take advantage of their dominance, Pienaar kicked them to a one-point win.
Northampton needed a miracle to qualify, but couldn't even muster a win to keep themselves in the hunt, a dazzling Peter Horne try at the death condemning them to defeat.
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First, Clermont conquered their domestic hoodoo, then they finally got the better of Leinster. Now they have their eyes set firmly on European glory.
A perfect six wins from six was sealed on Saturday as they cantered to a win against Llanelli with nothing on the line.
They have shown nothing so far to doubt their billing as early favourites for the crown.
Leinster, on the other hand, will be licking their wounds. Three Heineken Cups in the last four years mean this can be viewed as nothing less than a massive disappointment.
They can blame an early season injury list, but they had a chance to at least make things difficult for Munster but failed to do so.
After sealing the bonus point with more than a half hour to play, they seemed to run out of steam, though one must praise the effort of Exeter who never gave up the fight.
With the departure of Jonny Sexton and the aging of O'Driscoll, Isa Nacewa, Leo Cullen and Gordon D'Arcy, one must question if the Leinster era is coming to an end.
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Whether or not you think Toulon showed up to play, their is no doubting the intentions of Montpellier last weekend.
Many have questioned the desire that Toulon showed, suggesting they favoured seeing Montpellier in the knockout stages rather than Toulouse or Leinster.
The carrot of a first European Cup quarterfinal was enough to spur the unheralded French side to a huge win.
They totally outplayed Toulon in all facets of the game, with Toulon failing to register any points after an early Jonny Wilkinson penalty gave them the first points of the game.
They may not have the cash or star power of the other French sides left in the tournament, but they don't lack in passion.
Qualifiers: Toulon, Montpellier
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Harlequins vs. Munster
Clermont vs. Montpellier
Toulon vs. Leicester
Saracens vs. Ulster
Clermont/Montpellier vs. Harlequins/Munster
Saracens/Ulster vs. Toulon/Leicester