LEINSTER 26, BOURGOIN 23
Pride of place went to Leinster, who won in France for only the second time since the cup was established eight years ago, when they defeated Bourgoin by 26-23 Friday night thanks in the main to a brilliant late try by Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll.
With Bourgoin fielding a much changed side from the one that had been crushed at Lansdowne Road the week previously, Leinster were trailing by 23-19 going in the last few minutes of a fiercely contested game when O’Driscoll cut between two defenders with a devastating burst of speed and then sidestepped the full-back for a wonderful individual match-winning score.
Comfortably ahead in Pool Two, Leinster can almost certainly afford to lose one of their two remaining matches, against Bath away and Treviso in Dublin, and still qualify for the last eight. However, if they manage to win both, they will be guaranteed a home quarterfinal at Lansdowne Road.
While Leinster deserved the victory based both on their persistence and on O’Driscoll’s class, they struggled for much of the first half and found themselves trailing by 13-12 at the changeover. With important tackles being missed, Leinster conceded an early try and were only able to hang on to Bourgoin’s shirt tails due to some superb goalkicking by David Holwell, who landed four penalties in four attempts.
But the winners made an inspirational start to the second half when center Felipe Contepomi cleverly created the space to put O’Driscoll over for the first of his tries. Holwell converted to make it 19-13. However, Bourgoin retaliated with a penalty and a converted try of their own and it seemed as if Leinster would be edged out until O’Driscoll’s coup de grace.
MUNSTER 36, CASTRES 8
It was similarily fraught for Munster in the early stages of their match against Castres at Thomond Park. Needing a win after losing to the French side a week earlier, Munster trailed for much of the first half before turning on their forward power to win easily, 36-8.
There was sufficient bad blood in the contest to warrant four players, including Donncha O’Callaghan and Ronan O’Gara, being sin-binned, and one, Castres’ prop, Alessio Galasso, being sent off. While some of those decisions were debatable, referee Roy Maybank should probably have sent off both Alexandre Albouy and Jacques Deen for respective assaults on Peter Stringer.
The game was at simmering rather than boiling point, and while it was never a spectacle of open-running rugby, Munster’s reliance on brawn rather than brain proved to be a winning tactic. Time and again, the home forwards drove Castres back with Anthony Foley, Paul O’Connell and Denis Leamy all playing key roles in what was an extremely physical encounter.
While Munster are now top of their pool, but in order to secure a quarterfinal at their Thomond citadel, they need to beat both the Ospreys at home and Harlequins in London. “We’ve got to get two wins,” coach Alan Gaffney said, “so we know we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Down 5-0 in the opening minutes, Munster took time to settle, but with their forwards in control, the excellent Foley tapped a penalty to himself, charged toward the line and spun out of an attempted tackle to score the first of the winners’ five tries. Then the tireless Leamy crossed for another in first half injury time and with O’Gara adding both conversions and a penalty, Munster were ahead by 17-8 at the interval.
Making his 50th European Cup appearance, O’Gara also broke Diego Dominguez’s points record for the competition by bringing his own tally up to 649, and when he added the extra points to O’Connell’s try in the 49th minute, Munster were in the clear.
“It wasn’t pretty at times, but it was a real Munster performance,” O’Connell said. “Anthony Foley had asked for honesty before the game and that’s what he got in abundance, and that’s what Munster is about on days like this.”
As the Castres forwards capitulated, Frankie Sheahan was driven over for a try by his teammates and then full-back Christian Cullen rounded the scoring off with another try in the corner. It mightn’t have been vintage Munster, but the quest for their Holy Grail of a European title continues in earnest.
ULSTER 18, STADE FRANCAIS 10
For Ulster, it was a case of needing to win to stay alive in the competition and they delivered in style with an impressive 18-10 victory at Ravenhill over French champions Stade Francais. Even though they trail Stade in third place in the pool, if Ulster could deliver wins against Gloucester at home and then Cardiff away, they will retain a slim chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.
If O’Driscoll proved to be the star turn for Leinster, his international colleague David Humphreys was the inspiration for Ulster’s memorable success. Apart from kicking two penalties and a stunning long-range drop goal, Humphreys crossed for an all-important try when he finished off a good passing movement.
“I think the forwards gave David the platform,” Ulster coach Mark McCall said. “It wasn’t a case of us hanging on. We beat a quality side and showed our own capability.”
After Stade had opened the scoring with an early try, Ulster hit back to lead 8-7 at halftime with a magnificent solo try from Kieran Campbell.
The second half was all Humphreys as he dominated the scoring to give his team the result they so badly needed and to continue a three-year unbeaten record in European competition in Belfast.
MONTPELLIER 19, CONNACHT 14
Connacht advanced to the quarterfinals of the European Challenge Cup despite losing 19-14 away to French club Montpellier. A massive home win in the first leg meant that Connacht prevailed comfortably by an aggregate score of 70-22, but their progress wasn’t without its controversy as coach Michael Bradley accused the French of dirty tactics.
“It started at the first scrum when our prop was bitten on the side of the face,” Bradley said. “Then the punches went in and the eye-gouging started. We were not protected by the match officials. I’m disappointed they didn’t take a firm stand.”
Paul Warwick scored a try and a penalty, while Eric Elwood landed two penalties for the western province.