THE CHAMPIONS ARE out of Europe at the pool stages. If that sounds pretty ignominious, then it probably is.
Sure, there were mitigating circumstances in a hefty injury list and a tough pool, but them’s the breaks and they weren’t the only team with injured players or good teams to contend with.
It’ll be especially gut-wrenching that the team to edge them out of the knockouts are their arch rivals, Munster, a team they would believe themselves to be better than.
Harlequins will be happier to be facing Munster than a rejuvenated Leinster that has belatedly sparked into life since getting a proper backline on the pitch.
But, hey, that’s Heineken Cup rugby.
Leinster can at least console themselves that they kept up their half of the bargain by securing the 10 match points they needed in the final two rounds. That they did so in a swashbuckling style reminiscent of the last two seasons is reason enough to believe that they are not a busted flush yet, and that their premature exit should not be seen as a serious demise. But to be entering the final rounds relying on the middle-tier French clubs for favours – especially once their own fates have been sealed – is never going to be a recipe for success. Leinster have only themselves to blame.
While it’s tempting to look at the possibility that they left a few tries out there against both Scarlets and Exeter, in truth the damage was done in rounds one to four. Again, many will look to the double-header with Clermont, but given the backline Leinster had out in both games (Goodman at 12, and every other player from 11-15 playing out of their best position) and the nature of Clermont’s sense of unfinished business, it is understandable that they should lose both games.
Just one more point would have left Leinster’s fate in their own hands, and the opening week fiasco, where they sleepwalked to a fortuitous, tryless win over an Exeter which conceded seven tries at home to Clermont the following week was the one that got away. To look at it more thematically, Leinster will rue that a misfiring lineuot proved expensive right through the pool stages.
No such concerns on the face of it for Ulster, but in having to go away to Saracens, they have made their possible passage to the final more difficult than it should have been. They, too, will have cause for regret, in particular in taking their eye off the ball against Northampton in round four.
Having slaughtered the Saints in Franklin’s Gardens it looks as if Ulster may have got a bit carried away with themselves in the build-up to the return leg, and paid a heavy price. Even still, a single extra point would have reversed the quarter-final match venue and as such, the awful third quarter in which they allowed Glasgow to dominate in Pool 5 left them one try short of what would have been a crucial bonus point.
By contrast, Munster will reflect that they are happy to be still in the competition after somehow squeezing out of a pool in which they never really impressed.
They can look back on the 10-minute salvage operation against Edinburgh at home as the point that made all the difference to their campaign. With one try on the board after 70 minutes, it looked set to be a disappointing afternoon at Thomond Park, but Paddy Butler’s introduction provided a spark and they manufactured three tries in the dying minutes, against admittedly hapless opposition.
They’re unlikely to do much in the knock-out stages, where the Anglo-French axis look set to dominate, but how Leinster must envy them.