Penney paying attention only to Toulouse test

Thoughts of a potential Heineken Cup semi-final with Leinster can wait as far as Munster head coach Rob Penney is concerned, it is a first visit to Thomond Park by four-time champions Toulouse that will exercise his mind as European competition goes into the knockout stages.

Penney paying attention only to Toulouse test

Munster’s 38-6 hammering of Edinburgh yesterday brought the bonus-point victory Penney’s side required as Pool 6 winners to give them a home quarter-final come the first week in April. When Clermont Auvergne prop Vincent Debaty’s try against Racing Metro a couple of hours later sealed a similar outcome for his side it was enough to ensure competition heavyweights Toulouse would be making the trip to Limerick as fifth seeds on the weekend of April 4/5/6.

Ulster’s victory at Leicester on Saturday had already placed them as the top-seeded team with a home tie at Ravenhill against their quarter-final conquerors of last season Saracens, while the events of yesterday sent Leinster into the last eight as sixth seeds and facing a tough trip to third seeds Toulon.

In the other quarter, second seeds Clermont will host best runners-up Leicester at their Stade Marcel Michelin bastion, their victory over Racing stretching their unbeaten record there to 72 games.

Yesterday evening’s draw for the semi-finals will see the winners of Ulster and Saracens face Clermont or Leicester, with Toulon or Leinster hosting the winners of the Munster-Toulouse clash.

Not that Penney was too focused on the last four.

“We’ve got a massive hurdle to get over against Toulouse at home here first,” Penney said, “we won’t be looking too far beyond that.”

Yet, having won on the road at Perpignan and Gloucester in the pool stages this year and having beaten Harlequins in London in last year’s quarters before narrowly losing to Clermont in Montpellier in the semis, Penney said there was nothing to fear from an away semi-final that may well take them only as far as the Aviva Stadium.

“Traditionally Munster have never feared going away and this group have certainly got a little bit of that in them as well. We had a really good performance against a tough Harlequins team in the quarter-final last year at The Stoop and then we pushed Clermont so I don’t think, although there’s some top sides in that top eight, if we manage to get through Toulouse, there’s nothing there that Munster should really, really fear and not give a good crack to.”

Toulouse are likely to be missing captain Thierry Dusautoir, ruled out for at least three months having torn a biceps in the victory over Zebre on Saturday, when they meet Munster for the fourth time in the competition. Munster have twice beaten the French giants, winning a semi-final in 2000 and the 2008 final but losing the 2003 semi and Penney called their first visit to Thomond Park “another chapter in the marvellous Munster European championship book.

“Any team coming here, well, it’s just fantastic for us to host them and we’ll just have to see what they bring.”

Leinster head coach Matt O’Connor was also wary of speculating on a Leinster-Munster semi-final, saying: “Of course the draw will get fans and media talking but we can’t control that. All that we can control is our own performance away to Toulon. If we get over that considerable hurdle we will have plenty of time to talk about a potential semi-final then and I am sure Rob (Penney) will say the same.”

Ulster director of rugby David Humphreys meanwhile, must prepare his province for a renewal of hostilities with Saracens, to whom they lost at Twickenham last April and the return of their boss, former Ravenhill favourite Mark McCall.

“We are obviously pleased to be on the home side of the draw for the semi-finals, but that will only be relevant if we beat Saracens at Ravenhill in the quarter-final,” Humphreys said.

“Last season we were hugely disappointed with the way we performed at Twickenham against Saracens. Now we have the opportunity to lay those ghosts to rest.”

Reasons to be…

CHEERFUL : Two home quarter-finals out of three is an excellent return for the Irish provinces, particularly for Munster given how much trouble they were in after losing to Edinburgh in the first game.

Ulster: They have a major bone to pick with Saracens after losing 27-16 to them in Twickenham at this stage last year, and will relish unleashing Ravenhill’s full fury on them with John Afoa and Tom Court bidding to sign off on their Ulster tenure in style.

Munster: Their clash with Toulouse is a classic between the Heineken Cup’s powerful old guard — a repeat of the 2008 final — and the southerners looked very sharp putting Edinburgh away, marrying scrum power with straight running and their customary excellent defence. Toulouse are still decent on paper but progression to the last eight this year has only arrested an alarming decline since their last overall win in 2010.

Leinster: They travel to Toulon without any pressure on them. The hosts will be expected to strangle the life out of them up front but having seen off Castres away in round five, Matt O’Connor has a win on French soil under his belt to go with the semi-final win at Clermont a couple of years ago that the majority of his squad still have in their memory banks.

FEARFUL : Ulster: At least they know what they’re dealing with when Sarries come calling, but they didn’t handle it too well last time. Restarts were a big problem and Ulster couldn’t find a way past a blitz defence led by Brad Barritt, although they showed glimpses against Montpellier that Paddy Jackson is better equipped to probe in behind if the tactic is employed again.

Munster: Despite the encouraging showing against Edinburgh, there’s still a suspicion that Munster don’t score enough tries to be able to prevail in tighter games against higher-quality opposition, something that usually isn’t an issue for Toulouse. Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan have both had moments of brilliance and moments to forget this season and whoever is picked at 10, their game management and goal-kicking credentials will undergo a serious examination.

Leinster: Toulon will have seen how much change Castres got out of the Leinster midfield with neither Gordon D’Arcy or Brian O’Driscoll going low enough in the tackle.

The hosts have no shortage of massive, powerful runners with good offloading skills to send their way, and without Sean O’Brien Leinster lack their best ball-carrier to hit back in kind or win the arm-wrestle on the deck.

Should Leinster lose that physical battle, they could find their opportunities limited.

- by Alan Good

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