London Irish and Ospreys rue mistakes as Heineken Cup stakes rise
London Irish were 12 points up with 20 minutes to go when they were awarded a penalty 25 yards out just to the left of the posts. Had they kicked it, they would have insulated themselves against a home revival and given them time to create one more try for a winning bonus point.
Instead, Irish kicked the penalty to touch and tried to drive the line-out. Nothing came of it and 12 minutes later they found themselves two points behind after the scored two converted tries. Unable to chase the game, they returned home without even a bonus point.
The makes for an unforgiving environment. The Guinness Premiership may like to promote itself as the most competitive league in the world, but Europe's premier club tournament is unquestionably on a higher level. Decision making has little margin for error, something teams who have established themselves in the tournament over the years, such as Munster, Leicester and Toulouse, appreciate.
Toulouse have already qualified for the quarter-finals and Munster are all but there, along with the holders, Leinster, a side who in the last couple of seasons have come to terms with the demands of the Heineken Cup after years of learning the hard way. Leicester have the small matter of a trip to Swansea to face Ospreys for a winner-takes-all encounter, or at least second place and one of the best runners-up spots with needing a bonus point victory at Viadana, something the Tigers and the Welsh region managed with little difficulty in the opening rounds.
London Irish, Northampton, Ospreys and Clermont Auvergne are among the sides looking to join the European elite. Irish have to defeat Leinster at Twickenham on Saturday, and perhaps secure a bonus point in the process; a bonus point may not be enough for in-form Northampton at Munster, while Ospreys will need to find the mental hardness that .
Munster, Leicester, Toulouse and, more recently, Leinster have shown as the tournament evolves that they have the knack of winning when it matters. Munster are never more dangerous than when they are written off, which considering their record is surprisingly often, and it is the same with .
Munster would not have made the mistakes of and Ospreys over the weekend. They would have secured the victory over Scarlets before going for the bonus point and they would, very probably, have returned from Clermont with a bonus point because that was the minimum requirement from the game.
It was a match remained in for a long while, but Clermont applied a slow constriction, tightening their grip to the point where the discipline of the visitors cracked. The Welsh region, who succumbed meekly at the quarter-final stage in the previous two seasons, have it all to prove on Saturday.
They need an epiphany: it came for , an away quarter-final that few outside Dublin fancied them to win after choking in key matches earlier in the decade, most notably in semi-finals against Perpignan and Munster.
Leinster did not manage a try at Quins in a game of only three scores but they shattered their image of an attacking team that lacked by getting stuck in. A few weeks later, they and went on to beat Leicester in the final, joining the elite.
Leinster l, at home to London Irish. Munster and Leicester have suffered the same in past seasons, but they have invariably recovered: quarter-finalists are not decided in the opening round and the Heineken Cup is about being able to step up when it matters.
That is what Northampton, Ospreys, London Irish and even Clermont have to show this weekend. The Saints have won their last 10 matches in all competitions, but a packed Thomond Park on a Friday night in January will be something else; .
The television scheduling for the final round is puzzling. Why is Biarritz's group, which was effectively sorted in the last round, one of two being played on the final day? Sunday's matches will be about the passage into the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals while the draw games at and Ospreys are given kick-off times that are unfriendly to paying spectators.
That is professional sport today. have to play twice in five days, even though it was known before the final group matches were settled that their game at Munster was likely to be one of the games of the final round. Munster, like Leicester, Leinster and Toulouse, have learned to cope with adversity and how to manage the demands of a tournament unlike any other. The rest are on the road to find out.