By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — With Munster already through to the European Cup quarterfinals, and Leinster in line to join them, last weekend had all the makings of a red-letter occasion for Irish rugby. But Leinster’s loss to Biarritz and an injury to Brian O’Driscoll that could keep the international star out of Ireland’s opening Six Nations game in Rome left a bitter taste.
Munster duly secured a home draw in the last eight when they saw off the challenge of Castres by 21-11 at Musgrave Park — last season’s beaten finalists will now meet Biarritz in Limerick on Sunday — but Leinster’s chances of adding a second Irish province to the ticket crumbled during a controversial game in Biarritz.
Needing a draw to progress, Leinster accepted their 30-10 defeat, but coach Matt Williams was none too pleased with the performance of Italian referee Giovanni Morandin.
"I don’t get paid enough by the Irish Rugby Union to get a fine, but it was very imaginative," Williams said. "It’s funny, but I didn’t know the laws changed when you crossed the channel.
"It certainly wasn’t the reward the players deserved for the dedication and professionalism they’ve shown all year and it’s very hard when you see the whistle blown like that."
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Awarding 23 penalties to Biarritz and 10 to Leinster, Morandin didn’t just tilt the balance of Leinster’s most important game of the season, he also turned it into a stop-start affair which on a muddy surface favored the big French forwards. A try by full-back Girvan Dempsey meant that Leinster trailed by just 12-10 at the interval. However, Biarritz dominated the second half.
If this result was a major setback, Leinster and Williams will know only too well that qualification was lost during the drawn home game against Edinburgh when a substantial lead was squandered in the closing minutes.
Meanwhile, the situation regarding O’Driscoll was not looking too good as the countdown to the Six Nations begins. The center who burst on the international scene last season when he scored three tries against France in Paris, damaged his shoulder in the closing minutes in Biarritz and could now miss the first game of the championship against Italy in Rome a week from Saturday.
As for Munster, the comfort of qualification was a major help as they saw off the challenge of Castres. However, this latest victory secured a home game in the quarterfinals. If Leinster had prevailed, it would have been an all-Irish contest, but Mick Galwey and his team must once again fly the flag.
Despite conceding an early try, Munster controlled the first half with tries by Anthony Foley and Dominic Crotty to lead 15-8 at the changeover, and from then on the outcome was never in doubt.