Ulster fought bravely down to 14 men for 76 long minutes but fell near the end as Saracens came away with a 17-15 win in the late game of the 2014 Heineken Cup quarter-finals on Saturday. Earlier in the day, Munster convincingly dispatched of Toulouse, 47-23, before Clermont won a thriller against visitors Leicester by a score of 22-6.
In the last quarter-final on Sunday, Toulon defeated Leinster 29-14 to leave the Semi-Final line up looking like this:
|Heineken Cup Semi-Finals 2014|
|Saracens v ASM Clermont Auvergne||Saturday April 26||3:40 p.m. BST/10:40 a.m. ET||Twickenham Stadium|
|Toulon v Munster Rugby||Sunday April 27||4:30 p.m. BST/ 11:30 a.m. ET||Stade Velodrome|
Defending Heineken Cup champions Toulon knocked out three-time winners Leinster in a magnificent battle, setting up a semi-final clash with Munster in Marseille on Sunday, 27 April.
This was the first meeting between the sides in the tournament, although between them, they have won the trophy in four of the last five seasons, per ERCRugby.com.
Ex-England rugby star Jonny Wilkinson's injury jinx struck again and he was forced off in the first half, but he'd already managed to kick two penalties and put them into a 6-0 lead before departing the scene in the 28th minute after a heavy challenge.
Leinster were up against it during the early part of proceedings and only some last-ditch defending stopped the score from increasing quite rapidly. Mathieu Bastareaud in particular, was getting in amongst it for the home side.
However, Toulon's handling errors were plentiful and despite a number of chances, they could not make their pressure count.
David Smith was put through by Wilkinson but a late Rob Kearney interception, stopped the score.
That Leinster were able to go in at half time level at 6-6 after two Jimmy Gopperth penalties, said much about the backs-against-the-wall performance from the Irish.
It didn't sit well with the home support who booed their team off of the pitch.
However, within five minutes of the restart, the boos had subsided as Toulon raced into a 10-point lead.
Matt Giteau fired a splendid long-ranger over from almost the halfway line and then prop Xavier Chiocci grounded after some fine work in the build-up from Craig Burden.
Gopperth grabbed another three but from there on in it was all Toulon.
Bastareaud waltzed through a trio of tackles to hand off to the grateful Drew Mitchell, who escaped Gordon D'Arcy's attentions before extending the lead.
Giteau converted, Delon Armitage crashed home a penalty and things began to look ominous for Leinster who trailed by 29-6 at that point.
With 10 minutes to go, Jordi Murphy gave the visitors a glimmer, but it was too little, too late. Even the sin-binning of Florian Fresia couldn't change the scoreline, Toulon worthy winners in the end.
Hosts Munster demolished a lackluster Toulouse squad, 47-23, as the Irish team played with all of the drive and intensity the French giants seemed to be missing.
A six-try rout was the logical result, and Munster will now advance to the semi-final where they'll face the winner of tomorrow's tie between Toulon and Leinster.
The hosts opened the match brilliantly and placed the pressure on the French shoulders early, attacking the line-out feverishly. An injury to Peter O'Mahony dampened spirits a bit, and as Munster failed to capitalise on their dominance, the visitors were lucky to somehow go into the dressing rooms down only 13-9.
Keith Earls had scored the opener in the right corner, and Ian Keatley would add the conversion (7-10 on the day, with three penalties), with Toulouse only able to answer with three Luke McAlister penalties.
Playing into the wind certainly played its part in the low scoreline for the hosts, and the question became whether Toulouse would be able to cope with having to do the same in the second half. The answer was no.
Dave Kilcoyne scored within two minutes of the restart and man of the match CJ Stander would add just minutes later, capping off an excellent performance on his birthday.
Hosea Gear and Joe Tekori would score for the visitors but it was no more than consolation as Simon Zebo and Paul O'Connell put the final score up on the scoreboard, ensuring the team would keep its unbeaten record against French opposition at home.
Toulouse manager Guy Noves was understandably dissatisfied with his team's performance but made it very clear it had more to do with the excellent display of the hosts, via The Guardian's Brendan Fanning:
Today Munster taught us a big lesson and we'll have to learn from that. They carried the ball really well and it made it very difficult for us in defence. It took a huge effort for us to score but for Munster it came easier. It's the first time Munster have beaten us by such a margin, which reflects well on Irish rugby. It's up to us to rise to the next occasion. Whether we lost because of conceding so many tries or by conceding two points we still have a lot to learn.
Clermont extended their sensational win streak at home to 25 with a 22-16 victory over Leicester, having dominated the early proceedings and holding on during a late surge from the visitors.
The hosts opened up a lead with a couple of Morgan Parra penalties and a try from Wesley Fofana, and Clermont looked to be in excellent shape to finish the tie early.
Down by 13, Jordan Crane's beautiful score and Owen Williams' conversion put the visitors right back in the match, and it became a battle of specialists as Parra and Williams exchanged blows.
Williams seemed to gain the upper hand, bringing his team ever closer with a number of clutch kicks from a long way out, but a late yellow card for backup Thomas Waldrom and the resulting penalty restored the gap to six points.
The Tigers would come close to pulling off a miracle comeback, but their attempt would literally die a few yards out as the hosts held on to extend the streak to 75.
Brian Moore congratulated the visitors, but also noticed the hosts were simply too strong:
In the last match of the day, hosts Ulster were forced to play out the match with just 14 players as Jared Payne was red-carded after just four minutes for a dangerous challenge on airborne Alex Goode, who had to be carried off the pitch on a stretcher.
While the official's decision infuriated plenty of the home fans both in the stadium and in the Twittersphere, Bath Rugby full-back Nick Abendanon felt the red card was certainly the correct decision:
To make matters, Ruan Pienaar and Rory Best both came up with injuries early, making the task a near-impossible one for Ulster. Both the hosts would buckle down and put together an absolutely heroic performance, supported by a fiery crowd who's constant screams were deafening.
Pienaar would open the scoring with a penalty and add two more before half-time, and a try by Saracens' Chris Ashton made the score 9-5 Ulster at the end of the first.
Jim Stokes couldn't believe what he was seeing:
Mouritz Botha would open the scoring for Saracens in the second half, as fatigue clearly started to set in for the Ulster players. But Owen Farrell had a nightmare game kicking for the visitors, missing three attempts prior to that try and hooking the conversion wide, making it 10-9 Saracens.
Ashton would score his second to give the visitors a clear path to the win, but yet another crucial miss from Farrell combined with two penalties from Paddy Jackson ensured the game would go down to the wire.
In range and with no time left on the club, Ulster desperately looked for an opening or a foul that would give the team a chance to complete a miraculous comeback, but to the dismay of the crowd, the French official refused to give the penalty to the hosts, instead seeing a foul that would hand the ball back to Saracens to end the game.
The visitors celebrated wildly as this win truly was as hard-fought as a win can be, but all credit for this stunning match must go to Ulster. Brian Moore praised the hosts:
Saracens will play Clermont in the semi-finals when competition resumes, while Munster will play the winner of tomorrow's match between Toulon and Leinster.