Racing far from a cert in Europe’s knockout stages
One rule to bear in mind over the line-up for the quarter-finals — the top seeds are always knocked out, or they have been for each of the last three seasons.
Racing Metro, therefore, have reason to be wary despite looking every inch potential champions in their rout of Northampton.
Last year’s top seed, Ulster, lost to Saracens at Ravenhill, just as Harlequins, No. 1 the season before, fell to Munster at The Stoop. Munster, No. 1 the season before that, succumbed to Ulster in Limerick.
Saracens, through largely by virtue of Toulouse’s slump, will not be too worried about Racing. Two seasons ago they beat the Parisians home and away, so who’s to say the No. 1 seeds won’t disappear again?
Top eight seeds this season: 1. Racing, 2. Toulon, 3. Clermont, 4. Leinster, 5. Bath, 6. Northampton, 7. Wasps, 8. Saracens.
Top eight seeds last season: 1. Ulster, 2. Clermont, 3. Toulon, 4. Munster, 5. Toulouse, 6 Leinster, 7. Leicester, 8. Saracens. Champions: Toulon.
Top eight seeds season 2012-3: 1. Harlequins, 2. Clermont, 3. Saracens, 4. Toulon, 5. Leicester, 6. Ulster, 7. Montpellier, 8. Munster. Champions: Toulon.
Top eight seeds season 2010-1: 1. Northampton, 2. Leinster, 3. Perpignan, 4. Biarritz, 5. Toulouse, 6. Toulon, 7. Leicester, 8. Ulster. Champions: Leinster.
England’s four survivors are all away and history tells us that, on average, only one quarter-finalist wins on the road. The Six Nations will have come and gone by the time Europe comes out of its winter hibernation but don’t be surprised if the semi-finals look like this: Toulon v Leinster, Clermont v Racing.
Johnson’s tackle on Kearney simply red
According to the letter of the law, Ashley Johnson didn’t have a leg to stand on. Wasps’ mop-haired Springbok flanker ought to have gone. The consequences of his foul on an airborne Dave Kearney is spelt out in a directive from the law-makers. It says: ‘’The lifted player is dropped to the ground from a height with no regard to the player’s safety – Red card offence.’’
Instead, Johnson survived the earliest binning to help an outplayed Wasps find a lifeline into the last eight while Kearney sat out the entire match wincing with pain from his shoulder, the picture of misery.
That would have been nothing compared to Leinster’s collective devastation had Andy Goode’s last-kick drop goal gone over.
The suspicion may persist that Johnson avoided having the book thrown at him because it happened straight from the kick-off but that theory does Jerome Garces a disservice. When Jared Payne brought Alex Goode crashing to earth in the Ulster-Saracens quarter-final last April, the French referee didn’t flinch from imposing the ultimate sanction.
Four minutes into a crucial match, Goode is carried off and Payne sent off. Four seconds into an equally crucial match at Coventry, the victim, Leinster wing Dave Kearney, is helped off and Johnson escapes with a yellow. Goode came hurtling down on his head/neck and/or shoulder. Kearney fell from a similar altitude on his shoulder. What’s the difference? The law makes no distinction other than to demand red.
In football, the old pros used to work on the principle they could get away with a bit of mayhem in the first minute. Tommy Smith, the old Anfield Iron then playing for Swansea against Spurs in a League Cup tie in the late 70’s, gave little Argentinian Ossie Ardiles a fearful shoeing as a sort of welcome-to-Wales. When Spurs, not unnaturally, complained, Smith responded with a rant about ‘fancy dan Latin American imports.’
As the former Liverpool manager, the late Bob Paisley, once said of the hard-as-nails Smith: “Tommy doesn’t tackle opponents so much as break them down for re-sale as scrap.’’
As Wasps’ distinguished ex-player, Lawrence Dallaglio, said of Johnson: “He was lucky just to get a yellow...’’
Stringer closing in on big 100 as Bath prepare to play Leinster
Old scrum-halves never fade away, they just keep making it through to the quarter-finals. Peter Stringer, pictured, an old hand on the tiller for the last quarter of Bath’s frantic home win over Glasgow Warriors, will be back in his natural habitat when his English employers go to Dublin for their duel with Leinster. And, as if the occasion is not grand enough in itself, Ireland’s evergreen scrum-half stands one match away from his 100th in the Heineken Cup-cum-Champions’ Cup – a figure reached only his old Munster team-mates Ronan O’Gara and John Hayes.
A long road back for two fallen giants
Two of Europe’s fallen giants made painfully premature exits over the weekend — Toulouse in the south of France, Leicester in the north of Ireland. There is no guarantee that either will make the starting grid next season.
Clubs who have been to 11 finals between them have fallen on such hard times, neither can be certain of a top-six finish domestically to qualify for the Champions’ Cup.
If they do make it, they will want to give Belfast a wide berth. In four European ties there over 11 years, the Tigers have lost the lot. The aggregate margin says it all – 122-30.
At least Munster, another gigantic absentee from the last eight, will have no such problem. Having given the faithful a reminder of the real thing in over-running Sale, they will now settle for nothing less than preventing Leinster seizing a hat-trick of Pro12 titles.
Team of the weekend
15. Simon Zebo (Munster)
14. Juan Imhoff (Racing)
13. Darren Cave (Ulster)
12. Jamie Roberts (Racing)
11. Teddy Thomas (Racing)
10. Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors)
9. Maxine Machenaud (Racing)
1. Paul James (Bath)
2. Dimitri Szarzewski (Racing)
3. Luc Ducalcon (Racing)
4. Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors)
5. Franco van der Merwe (Ulster)
6. Wenceslas Lauret (Racing)
7. Jordi Murphy (Leinster)
8. Nathan Hughes (Wasps).
Who can stop Toulon’s march?
Ryan Jones may have won three grand slams but the Welshman’s prediction of Scarlets-Toulon left a bit to be desired.
“Anything can happen,” Jones said.
Only one thing tends to happen when the holders defend their trophy — they win, as the Welsh promptly found out.
Toulon have won 24 of their last 27 European ties which leaves their next opponents, Wasps, holding the shortest of short straws.
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