Posts Tagged ‘Heineken Cup’

Saturday May 24, 12 PM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

The Heineken Cup will be replaced by the new European Rugby Champions Cup next season, so this match is the last hurrah for a great competition.

Steve Borthwick has recovered sufficiently from a chest injury to captain Saracens, which means an interesting storyline is maintained – he and Toulon captain Jonny Wilkinson, both of whom will retire at the end of the season, are also both former England captains. While Wilkinson is revered as an England legend, having kicked the drop goal that won the 2003 World Cup Final, Borthwick is associated with Martin Johnson’s ill-fated reign, a darker passage of English rugby history. Injuries permitting, Borthwick and Wilkinson will also play in their respective domestic finals next weekend, but first these proud warriors seek the ultimate accolade in European club rugby.

There will also be the subplot of the flyhalf battle: Wilkinson v Owen Farrell – master v apprentice. Who can forget last year’s Heineken Cup semifinal, when Farrell was slightly late charging down Wilkinson’s drop goal attempt? As the two lay on the ground, watching the ball flying inevitably through the posts, securing victory for Toulon, Wilkinson gave the younger man a consoling pat on the back.  Will this year be Farrell’s time?

The battle of the back rows will also be fascinating. Saracens’ is a key part of their vaunted “wolfpack” defense – Jacques Burger is an elite tackling machine, having made 27 and missed none in the semifinal thrashing of Clermont. (He also made 36 in a game against Exeter earlier this year.)  Toulon’s is led by Steffon Armitage, who has been in spectacular form both at the breakdown and with ball in hand. Armitage has not been considered for England selection since moving to France, and will be keen to show his skills against the incumbent England number 8, Billy Vunipola. Vunipola is known for his powerful running, but, still just 21 years old, continues to develop an impressive all-round game.  And all this is without mentioning the 3 other world-class players who will comprise the two back rows – Saracens’ Kelly Brown, and Toulon’s Juan Smith and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe – who have 188 international caps between them.

Toulon are slightly favored to repeat as champions, but I will go for Saracens by 3

Below, extended highlights from last year’s semifinal meeting between these two teams:

The Heineken Cup brought rugby fans two fantastic games on Saturday, underlining once again what a shame it would be if we were to lose the premier European club competition. The political situation is complex, and there are many financial interests at stake, but the bottom line is that the Heineken Cup is a wonderful showcase for the game we love, and benefits all of the clubs involved. As fans we can only hope that the bigwigs sort out their differences and keep the competition alive in one form or another.

Perpignan v Munster provided sheer heart-pounding drama – it was a brutally physical, tight contest that Munster were leading 13-12 when Italy center Tommaso Benvenuti scored a try for Perpignan in the 77th minute. That put the French side ahead 17-13 with just a few minutes to play. Munster managed to regain possession, but they were going nowhere, with their backs throwing some uncharacteristically sloppy passes. The siren sounded, indicating 80 minutes were up, and Munster knew they could not afford any errors, or the game would be lost. They showed incredible resilience to get back on the front foot, and then 21-year old JJ Hanrahan, who had only just been substituted on, produced a moment of magic – a sidestep that will live long in the memory of Munster fans. Hanrahan went over in the corner, and amazingly Munster had won the game 18-17.

Meanwhile, Leinster v Northampton Saints was the more fascinating in psychological terms. Leinster had humiliated Saints a week ago in Northampton, and everyone was wondering whether the English side would be able to recover in time for their trip to Dublin. Their response was a credit to everyone involved with the club. Northampton dominated the collisions and consistently got over the gainline, as the back row of Calum Clark, Tom Wood, and Samu Manoa (who was named Man of the Match) were outstanding. Leinster clearly missed the influence of Sean O’Brien at the breakdown and in the loose. Yet the Leinster defense held strong, and the Irish side only trailed 7-3 at halftime. The seesaw battle continued in the second half as the two teams traded penalties, and then a drop goal from replacement scrumhalf Kahn Fotuali’i put Northampton 13-9 ahead with time nearly up. Leinster fought their way back down the field as the siren sounded, going through more than 20 phases, camped out on the Northampton line for many of them. The Saints defense was resolute though, and finally Leinster and Ireland number 8 Jamie Heaslip knocked on. To add insult to injury, Saints wing Jamie Elliott pounced on the loose ball and ran it back for a try, robbing Leinster of the losing bonus point.