Irish and French rivalry reignited in Heineken Cup

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Irish and French rivalry reignited in Heineken Cup

Last year wasn’t a particularly vintage period for Irish-French relations. Thierry Henry’s now infamous handball, which helped seal France’s place in the forthcoming football World Cup finals, at the expense of a dejected Republic of Ireland, has helped create a frosty atmosphere between the two nations when it comes to sport.

This rivalry is set to be reignited next month as both Ireland and France will have two representatives in the Heineken Cup semi-finals following victories in the quarters over the weekend. It’s now a real possibility that next month’s showpiece final will be an all-Irish or all-French affair at the Stade de France.

There was high-tension, controversy and a whole lot of drama over the weekend as the final eight all contested for a place in the semi-finals.

The most successful team in the history of the competition, Toulouse, now have their sights set on a fourth European Cup after destroying Stade Français, 42-16, at the Stadium Municipal on Sunday afternoon.

Stade had their dream of reaching the final at their home ground cruelly left in tatters by David Skrela, Yannick Jauzion and co in a ruthless display of direct, attacking rugby by the home side. The Top 14 outfit managed to send out a clear warning to the rest of Europe with this brilliant display: that they remain the team to beat in this year’s Heineken Cup.

Meanwhile, their compatriots, Biarritz, also sealed their place in the final four - but in altogether less comprehensive fashion. In fact, their 29-28 win over Ospreys was tinged with controversy at the end of the match after referee George Clancy failed to award the visitors a penalty, despite indicating for one.

Full credit must go to the Welsh visitors, who wouldn’t have been blamed for feeling incensed with their cup exit, for keeping their composure at the final whistle. Ospreys scored a try more than their French opponents, but came up against a Takudzwa Ngwenya-inspired Biarritz, as they lost by a single point in San Sebastián.

The fourth French side left in the quarter-finals was Clermont Auvergne and they squared off against the reigning champions of Europe, Leinster, at the RDS Arena on Friday night.

Two tries from Irish No. 8, Jamie Heaslip, and another 19 points from the ever-improving Jonathan Sexton, helped the Heineken Cup holders to another narrow 29-28 victory, as they now concentrate on becoming only the second ever team to retain club rugby’s most prestigious prize.

A hat-trick of tries from Clermont’s powerful winger Julien Malzieu wasn’t enough to see a third Top 14 side into the semi-finals, but they certainly have the look of a club on the right path, in the season which could finally see their long search for domestic silverware come to an end.

Leinster coach, Michael Cheika, wouldn’t have been overly impressed with the manner in which his side won their quarter-final, particularly as they must travel to Toulouse and win to earn their place in a second consecutive final.

A daunting prospect for the Magners League side, but one which their French opponents must surely be relishing.

Meanwhile, Munster managed to secure their place in another Heineken Cup semi-final with a 33-19 victory against Northampton Saints in Limerick.

The Irish side remains on course for a joint-record third Heineken Cup trophy and their fifth appearance in a European Cup Final, despite going into the half-time break trailing 16-13.

Munster’s class eventually shone through in the second half - their four tries to Northampton’s one was a fair reflection of the match itself.

Jim Mallinder’s men have enjoyed a tremendous season in the Guinness Premiership and have done themselves proud in Europe, too. But this was one step too far for the Saints, who were pegged back by Ronan O’Gara’s accurate kicking – as so many teams have experienced before.

In a rerun of the 2006 Heineken Cup Final, Biarritz will host the Magners League giants in early May, aiming to go one better than that year, where they lost in the final by 23 points to 19.

Toulouse will go into next month’s semi-finals as the favourites to lift the European trophy and put daylight between themselves and every other team to have ever competed in this competition.  But after everything that’s happened between France and Ireland in sporting circles over recent months, perhaps this year’s race to the final is not a foregone conclusion quite yet.



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