European Team of the Week: Toulon Heap Misery on Cardiff Blues
The Heineken Cup quarter-final began to take shape this weekend after the first clubs gained qualification from the pool stage, with Toulon, Clermont and Munster all advancing at the top of their respective groups.
The stars were out in droves as the penultimate matches of the pool phase shook Europe once again, the continental hierarchy aiming to establish their dominance in search of major silverware.
Some teams impressed more than others, and the individuals themselves responded in kind, with France's giants having a particular impact on the European team of the week.
1. Alex Waller, Northampton Saints
Alex Waller's impact at loosehead continues to soften any impact that Alex Corbisiero's absence has had on the Northampton Saints, the youngster contributing another fine show at Ospreys.
The English visitors ruled the scrum at the Liberty Stadium, Waller also pitching in with a defensively pristine seven tackles.
2. Ross Ford, Edinburgh
It's not often that a front-rower gets his tackling figures into the double figures, but such was the characteristically mobile performance of Edinburgh's Ross Ford against Perpignan, the hooker getting about the pitch well, with 10 in total.
The Scot threw well into the line-out, losing just one in total, pushing his side onto a 27-16 victory that was largely thanks to the pack's fine work.
3. John Afoa, Ulster
Ulster's second-half display at Ravenhill this weekend laid the foundation for a pivotal 27-19 win over Montpellier, with Afoa driving over in the 56th minute.
That vital score was just the tip of the iceberg for the tighthead, however, who carried for an average of almost 10 metres per carry and failed to miss a tackle.
4. Devin Toner, Leinster
Devin Toner isn't often the man in the spotlight for Leinster, despite being their largest star in terms of sheer height.
The Irish international registered a substantial tally of six tackles in the win at Castres and carried less frequently than only two of his fellow scrum teammates.
5. Paul O'Connell, Munster
As ever, Paul O'Connell was the driving force behind a pool-sealing win for Munster in Europe, laying the groundwork for a clinical victory at Kingsholm with his work in the loose, but more importantly in the close game.
6. Julian Salvi, Leicester Tigers
Julian Salvi hasn't been permitted to star as frequently for Leicester Tigers as he might have hoped this season, but the flanker certainly went about his business in the right way at Treviso.
After Richard Cockerill's side found themselves down 13-8 at halftime, the back-row figure stood tall and got further into his groove, beating four defenders and carrying for 28 metres, all after he'd opened the scoring within the 10-minute mark.
7. Chris Fusaro, Glasgow Warriors
The captain in Glasgow's picture once again came to the fore as Chris Fusaro's leadership skills came into play at Sandy Park.
There, the flanker forced one turnover, made 14 tackles and was his usual, busy self at the breakdown, leading the Warriors to a 15-10 triumph against Exeter Chiefs.
8. Fritz Lee, Clermont Auvergne
A thrall of No. 8 giants pitched in with game-turning performances this weekend, including Leinster's Jamie Heaslip and Toulouse's Louis Picamoles, but it was another figure with French ties, Fritz Lee, who shone brightest.
The Clermont behemoth carried for a gargantuan 86 metres, making 14 tackles and beating three defenders along the way as his side staged a massive second-half comeback at Harlequins.
9. Ruan Pienaar, Ulster
The South African's hands were as sparkling clean as ever, but it's once again the boot that Ruan Pienaar led with, notching 17 of Ulster's 27 points this weekend.
Pienaar scored a first-half try of his own to take the fight to the French opposition, assisting another and making five tackles to round off a spotless display.
10. Jonny Wilkinson, Toulon
Toulon's 43-20 mauling of Cardiff Blues was largely thanks to a second-half upgrade from the hosts in Nice, with Jonny Wilkinson taking the bull by the horns and kicking for 23 points, but keeping the ball in hand whenever possible.
Playing the role of midfield lynchpin, the English stalwart also set up a try for David Smith and was typically unselfish going forward, making nine tackles without ball in hand.
12. Remi Lamerat, Castres
Castres' performance wasn't good enough for anything but a losing bonus point against Leinster, but Remi Lamerat was present in any hopes that the French hosts had of staging an upset.
Teaming up tremendously with centre partner Seremaia Bai, the Frenchman beat an incredible total of nine defenders, scoring a late consolation try as tribute to his efforts.
13. Matt Hopper, Harlequins
Matt Hopper's weekend will be remembered for the Englishman getting on the end of Danny Care's piece of touchline magic to go over for a run-in try, but the outing against Clermont ran far deeper than that.
The peroxide blond was a big presence in the tackle, made three turnovers and carried for a big haul of 44 metres at The Stoop.
11. George North, Northampton Saints
George North again comes into the team of the week thanks to his incredible yardage of 148 metres gained with ball in hand against Ospreys.
The Welshman ran in for one try down the left flank thanks to some fine graft from Kahn Fotuali'i and beat six defenders from just eight carries.
14. David Smith, Toulon
A robust display from the Samoan winger led to 112 metres from just seven carries and five defenders beaten.
Cardiff Blues won't want to come up against the try-scoring Smith again anytime soon, the 27-year-old switching onto the right wing here as a result of his lofty standards.
15. Brice Dulin, Castres
The aforementioned Lamerat may not have been nearly as fruitful were it not for the presence of his reliable fullback, Brice Dulin putting in a fine shift to give Philippe Saint-Andre something to think about ahead of the Six Nations.
Carrying for 111 metres and scoring one try in the process, Dulin could have been more secure in defence, but his offensive impact against Leinster was unfortunate not to lead to a bigger points reward.
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