Can Tigers blow out Michelin Men?

When Marcel Michelin created a rugby club for his hometown in 1911, he could never have imagined it would become what it is today – the team everyone wants to avoid.

In the finest tradition of the local tyre conglomerate, Clermont drove their way to a 71st straight at the stadium named after their founder, a home quarter-final due reward for their refusal to be diverted from the straight and narrow.

Despite an incessant deluge leaving them to negotiate a peat bog of a pitch, there was never any danger of The Michelin Men losing their grip of a home rule as massive as the Massif Central. Along the way, they reaffirmed their status not so much as a team for all seasons but the team to beat.

Racing, for all the money Jacky Lorenzetti has splashed on them, were never at the races and decidedly lucky not to have had almost twice as many yellow cards as points. By the time Clermont had finished with them, Leicester found they had drawn the shortest of short straws.

Well, somebody has to go there in the last eight. In winning 71 home matches since losing to Biarritz in November 2009, Clermont have scored four or more tries 32 times in totalling 264. The English Tigers will doubtless comfort themselves with the fact that all good things must end one day.

Ruan Pienaar’s majestic exhibition at Leicester has done more than stimulate the building trade in Belfast into ensuring that Ravenhill is brimming to its expanded 18,000 capacity for the quarter-final in April.

The perfect No. 9 has put Ulster in position to construct another perfect nine by doing something that has never been done before. No team has ever conquered Europe by winning all nine matches.

Ulster, only the 12th qualifier in almost 20 years to win all six pool matches, hope to be the first to go the full distance. The fate of the other 11 will reinforce opinion north of the border that there has to be a first time for everything. Of the previous six-out-of-six pool winners, the majority came to grief at the quarter-final stage despite home advantage – Harlequins last season, Munster (2012), Biarritz (2006), Leinster (2005), Bath (2002), Wasps (1998).

Three all-conquering qualifiers went to the semi-finals – Cardiff Blues in 2009, the Scarlets in 2007 and Leinster in 2003. Clermont last season and Northampton three years ago went all the way to the final only to lose to Toulon and Leinster respectively.

A disciplinary tribunal this week will determine whether Wales arrive in Dublin for the Six Nations next month with one of their Lions in a state of suspension. Ian Evans, sent off at the RDS for allegedly stamping on Leinster lock Mike McCarthy, faces a ban of anything up to eight weeks if found guilty.

Gloucester prop Nick Wood got that many for stamping on Schalk Brits’ head at Saracens in September. Evans, sent off for two yellows at Treviso last season, knows that anything more than a three-week punishment will put him out of Wales’ first two matches, at home to Italy on February 1 and Ireland in Dublin seven days later.

A middle-aged Englishman has become one of the most watched figures in Europe this season and he was centre-stage again yesterday. Geoff Warren, reappearing in his role as the tournament’s leading TMO, duly struck another blow for technology. It took him a while to reach the verdict and ensure that justice was not only done but seen to be done. English referee Greg Garner asked his compatriot to check on foul play before Wesley Fofana finished off what would have been Clermont’s third try. Warren ruled that Clermont’s Fritz Lee had taken out Racing’s Benjamin Dambielle. The whole process took some three minutes because a storm of booing made it impossible for Garner to hear the verdict at the first attempt.

It was all abnormally tame by Thomond Park standards – Munster converting their last pool match into a gold-plaited home quarter-final.

The try bonus point arrived with fully 20 minutes left on the clock, run-of-the-mill stuff for a team with a penchant for the supernatural. Edinburgh, for all their nine Southern Hemisphere imports, were never good enough to demand a miracle, of the sort Munster conjured up against Gloucester in 2003 and almost repeated three years later at the expense of Philippe Saint-Andre’s Sale.

Judged solely on the number of times each of the last eight has qualified for the quarter-finals, Munster are top of the pile. They’ve made it this far 15 times, Toulouse 14, Leicester 12, Leinster 10, Ulster, Clermont 5 apiece, Saracens 4, Toulon 3.

Best of the weekend

Player: Ruan Pienaar (Ulster).

Victory: Ulster at Leicester.

Match: Scarlets v Harlequins.

Solo tries: Jonny May (Gloucester at Perpignan), Alex Goode (Saracens against Connacht).


15: Alex Goode (Saracens)

14: David Strettle (Saracens)

13: Jonny May (Gloucester)

12: Wesley Fofana (Clermont)

11: Johne Murphy (Munster)

10: Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)

9: Ruan Pienaar (Ulster)

1: Cian Healy (Leinster)

2: Rory Best (Ulster)

3: John Afoa (Ulster)

4: Johann Muller (Ulster)

5: Paul O’Connell (Munster)

6: Gerhard Vosloo (Clermont)

7: Justin Tipuric (Ospreys)

8: James Coughlan (Munster)

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