Pro12 prevails in Europe

Thu, 26 Jan 2017 07:45
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OPINION: Ronan Calvert gives rugby365's readers an Irish view on the final round of Europe's premier club competition - the Champions Cup.

He looks at how the Pro12 teams continued to impress on the continent's main stage.

Pool One: Munster (24), Glasgow (21), Leicester (8), Racing (5)

Results: Munster 22-10  Racing, Leicester 0-43 Glasgow
Team of the round: Glasgow
Player of the round: CJ Stander (Munster)

Comment: The Pro12 prevails. On Saturday evening, Munster and Glasgow Warriors simultaneously plotted their respective wins over Racing 92 and Leicester, two wins that were carried out in very different fashion.

In Limerick, Racing 92 came to play. Ronan O'Gara's men were embarrassed at Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir a fortnight ago by the same opposition but they were this time in every sense (bar a second-string backline selection) primed to pummel Munster. It in fact took 35 minutes for the home side to break the deadlock in Thomond Park through Simon Zebo's 6th try in 4 games against the Parisians.

Some sections of the Thomond faithful were perhaps beginning to feel impatient up until then, such was the expectation, but Munster's genuine class later shone through to secure their spot as the tournament's second seeds. It finished Munster 22-10 Racing despite the Parisians best efforts and there will be a return for Thomond Park in the quarterfinals of Europe.

A team that Munster could face in the semi-finals. are of course Glasgow Warriors. A team that dished out an emphatic thumping to a dour Leicester outfit in Welford Road. Gregor Townsend's troops are red hot on their day and so it proved, but Leicester should be no less than embarrassed by the 43-0 scoreline.

The English side need to have a hard look at their performances since the dismissal of Richard Cockerill in my view, and start their hunt for a new head coach as soon as possible. Though little do Glasgow care - their regular Pro12 excellence has finally translated to Europe and how they deserve it.

Pool Two: Wasps (22), Toulouse (18), Connacht (18), Zebre (0)

Results: Toulouse 19-10 Connacht, Zebre 27-41 Wasps
Team of the round: Toulouse
Player of the round: Joe Tekori (Toulouse)

Comment: Wasps have topped the pool as expected thanks to their 41-27 toppling of Zebre in Parma. Dai Young's men showed their typical sting in attack to secure the bonus point, but leaking 27 points to a club whose future is in doubt, is a cause for concern. They probably need some more time before becoming potential champions of this competition but I think they will prove testing opponents for Leinster nonetheless.

Connacht are the real losers of this pool though. The Pro12 champions have lost out on a quarterfinal spot on points difference to Toulouse despite winning a game more than the four time champions.

The two teams met in Stade Ernest-Wallon on Sunday both knowing what was required but Connacht would fall three points short of their losing bonus point goal, in what was Pat Lam's final European game as the province's head coach. Toulouse only impressed in spurts on the day but it proved enough to their opponent's side, setting up a quarterfinal date with Munster.

They say success tastes much sweeter when you know what failure tastes like first and Connacht will hope to spring those words into action in future campaigns, just like Munster and Leinster did before them.

Pool Three: Saracens (24), Toulon (16), Scarlets (11), Sale (4)

Results: Saracens 10-3 Toulon, Sale 25-23 Scarlets
Team of the round: Saracens
Player of the round: Owen Farrell (Saracens)

Comment: Saracens booked their home quarterfinal as they ran out as the victors in a tight contest with Toulon. Sarries may be the competition favourites but they perhaps didn't pack enough punch at the Allianz on Saturday to necessarily frighten the knockout stage rivals that stand between them and a successive cup triumph.

Glasgow are next up for them in the quarterfinals in what promises to be a scintillating display of fast-paced rugby. One thing is for sure, Mark McCall's men will be well challenged on their road to glory.

The other match of the pool may have been a ‘dead-rubber' but Sale Sharks certainly salvaged themselves some pride against a strong Scarlets side.

Will Addison and AJ McGinty starred for the Manchester side, accumulating 20 points between them, thus sending Scarlets home with a certain shade of red on their faces.

Pool Four: Leinster (23), Montpellier (16), Castres (12), Northampton (9)

Results: Leinster 24-24 Castres, Montpellier 26-17 Northampton
Team of the round: Castres
Player of the round: Nemani Nadolo (Montpelier)

Comment: Leinster travelled to Castres for their Friday night clash with the French underdogs and were in for a few surprises. Robbie Henshaw gave the visitors a dream start with a breakaway try, but things soon went downhill when Antoine Dupont stepped one or two to set the tone for the end-to-end dog-fight that lay ahead.

Matters got even tougher for the three-time champions as both Johnny Sexton & Isa Nacewa went down injured but showed their strength in depth to hang on for the draw.

Leinster host Wasps in the quarters and will be keen to demonstrate that the result in Castres was nothing more than blip on their radar. They will fancy themselves in the bigger picture but need to prove themselves up against the top-dogs to convince me that they have what it takes.

In Montpellier, the Fijian force that is Nemani Nadolo captured the headlines with a barnstorming run that saw him beat 5 defenders, but as an overall contest, this proved a tale of two half-interested competitors. Their European seasons are over and their focus returns to domestic action next week.

Pool Five: Clermont (26), Bordeaux (14), Exeter (12), Ulster (10),

Results: Clermont 48-26 Exeter, Ulster 22-26 Bordeaux
Team of the round: Clermont
Player of the round: Remi Lamerat (Clermont)

Comment: Clermont and Exeter served up a thriller on Saturday afternoon to a 48-26 scoreline. Clermont, as ever, the masters of the pool stage but will they be the inevitable masters of business-end failure once more?

With the level of competition, I wouldn't bet against it. For all of their quality individuals and flair, the French outfit just do not posses the same cup nous as the your Munsters, Leinsters, Sarries or Toulons of this world and the losses of battle-hardened veterans like Jamie Cudmore & Nathan Hines in recent years can be no good thing for their title bid.

Bordeaux were meanwhile busy heaping more misery on Les Kiss and his Ulster team. In a season that promised so much, the northern province have ended up winning just two of six European games.

In the midst of the fallout from the Exeter loss last weekend, their forward pack found themselves in for particular criticism and they were once again beaten up in round six, this time by the brave Bordeaux. Both sides are out but the French find themselves in the more positive state of mind looking forward to their domestic fixture list.

By Ronan Calvert of MunsterHaka.com
@rugby365com