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Rugby Roundup: A clean sweep

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

For starters, Leinster’s 27-23 success in Bath on Saturday guarantees them a place in the quarterfinal of the European Cup, and should they beat the Italian side Treviso in their last pool game in Dublin on Saturday, then that quarterfinal will be staged on the home soil at Lansdowne Road.
Despite defeating the Ospreys at Thomond Park — a 21st victory from 21 European matches at the Limerick citadel — Munster cannot rest as easy. They must beat Harlequins in London on Saturday to join Leinster in the last eight of the knockout stages.
Meanwhile, Ulster salvaged some pride from what has been a difficult campaign with a 14-12 victory over Gloucester in Belfast, and there was more positive news from Connacht, who defeated French side Grenoble 26-21 in Grenoble in the first leg of their European Challenge Cup quarterfinal. A win by any margin in the second leg in Galway on Saturday, and Connacht will be through to the semifinals for the second year in succession.

LEINSTER 27, BATH 23
For all their dominance in Pool Two, where Leinster have now made it five wins out of five, this latest result in Bath came on the back of an unconvincing performance. Even if a late burst of two tries in the closing minutes by David Holwell and Malcolm O’Kelly, both converted by Holwell, which brought them back from a seemingly hopeless situation at 23-13 down, was a reflection of their stubbornness, this was a match the English club should have won.
Strangely, Leinster had to play second fiddle in the vital area of the lineout, where they managed to secure just six of 21 throw-ins by hooker Shane Byrne. Even though coach Declan Kidney admitted the lineout was a major problem, he wouldn’t concede that Leinster deserved to lose.
“I think it would be an injustice to the players’ efforts to describe the win as lucky,” he said. “We stuck to our task and if we continue to do that we might make ourselves a nuisance to other teams. We had a chance to pull clear early on, but it didn’t happen, and then we took our foot off the pedal a little bit.”
However, Bath coach John Connolly said he would be surprised if Leinster’s forwards were good enough to take the province to overall victory in Europe’s most prestigious club competition.
“I can see some of the teams left in the tournament taking it to them in the forwards, but they’ll be in the mix that’s for sure,” he said.
Ahead early in the game thanks to an opportunist try by Shane Jennings and some accurate placekicking by Holwell, Leinster were pegged back to 13-13 at the interval. Then Bath took charge to move into a 10-point lead before Leinster emerged from their slumber to snatch an unlikely victory.
First, Holwell charged down an attempted clearance kick to canter over unopposed for a try, and then a minute later O’Kelly was on the end of a good passing movement for the vital match-winning score. Holwell converted both, and Leinster had escaped.

MUNSTER 20, OSPREYS 10
Munster didn’t escape from any critical situation as they overcame the challenge of the Ospreys by 20-10, but neither did they produce a vintage display in Limerick. Without their injured playmaker, Ronan O’Gara, they were always going to be at a disadvantage, and although his replacement, Paul Burke, performed well, landing four kicks from four attempts, the winners’ second-half display left much to be desired.
Boosted by tries from captain Anthony Foley and Christian Cullen, which had set up a 17-7 halftime lead, Munster failed to finish the job convincingly in the second half. They were never in any great danger of being caught off guard by their Welsh opponents, yet it was hard to blame some of the natives in the crowd for being a bit restless.
“We weren’t delighted, to be honest,” Paul O’Connell said. “We just didn’t play in the second half and we tried to let the wind do it for us. We kicked the ball and that was a big problem. We know we need to play for the full 80 minutes if we’re to go further in the competition.”
Turning with the wind, there was every reason to expect that Munster would quickly make the game safe following halftime, but that never happened. Not even when Burke put them 20-7 in front with his second penalty did the temperature rise appreciably. “What we agreed to do was to keep the ball in hand,” said a frustrated coach Alan Gaffney, “but there was no doubt that we didn’t do it.”
Munster now have to beat Harlequins at Twickenham to join Leinster in the quarterfinals, and if they manage that with a bonus point, they could also be assured of a home game. However, the competition organisers have decreed that “home” applies to the country of the team, so if Munster are successful, their match in the knockout stages will be played at Lansdowne Road — and possibly against Leinster.

ULSTER 14, GLOUCESTER 12
For Ulster, the disappointment of having no chance of reaching the last eight was eased by a hard-fought victory over English side Gloucester. Played in torrential rain, this win was all the more satisfying as the home team had to overcome a 9-point deficit before edging out their opponents with two late penalties by David Humphreys.
Trailing by 12-3 at the break, Ulster closed the gap when wing Tommy Bowe caught Humphreys’s high cross kick and fed fullback Bryn Cunningham, who burst over for a try. Then Humphreys struck for the first of his penalties as the home team edge ever closer, and finally it was Humphreys again who landed the pressure kick to leave Gloucester having to beat Stade Francais in the last game to have any hope of qualification.

CONNACHT 26, GRENOBLE 21
Connacht will take a 5-point lead into the second leg of their European Challenge Cup quarterfinal against Grenoble in Galway on Saturday. Having trailed by 21-13 at halftime in Grenoble, they did all the scoring in the second half through a couple of Paul Warwick penalties and a try by captain Andrew Farley.
Connacht will hope that injuries to Farley, Ray Hogan and James Downey will have cleared up by Saturday’s game, which will be in front of a sell-out crowd at the Sportsground.

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