Ulster and Clermont Auvergne brought their very best away form to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals on Sunday to set up last four clashes against outsiders Edinburgh and holders Leinster respectively.
Ulster prevailed 22-16 in a brutal encounter at Munster’s Thomond Park, while Clermont, at English champions Saracens’ Vicarage Road home, strangled the life out of their opponents for a 22-3 win.
Former champions Ulster’s flying start, thanks largely to three huge and deadly accurate penalties from his own half by South African scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, gave them a 16-0 lead after 19 minutes to quieten the raucous Munster home support.
Craig Gilroy’s superb solo try and an Ian Humphreys drop goal also threatened to knock the stuffing out of twice winners Munster, but a Simon Zebo try and Ronan O’Gara penalty on the stroke of halftime narrowed the lead to 19-10.
In a bruising second half, Munster battered the Ulster defense and a comeback victory to preserve their perfect record in the Heineken Cup this season did not look unlikely, but the away side clung on for their first semi-final berth in 13 years.
“We got off to a terrific start, with Ruan Pienaar kicking well, but our defense was the difference,” said man of the match Stephen Ferris, who lifted the 1999 cup with Ulster and was an injury doubt before the game.
“We wanted to make a statement in European rugby and we had to come here and get a win to do that,” he added on the Heineken Cup Web site.
Fellow second-row forward Paul O’Connell, the Munster captain, could not hide his disappointment at an uncharacteristically poor start.
“You just should never be 19 points down and I can’t remember that happening to us in all the time I’ve been with the club,” O’Connell said.
Later on, Clermont provided some French cheer after Toulouse’s shock exit on Saturday, Brock James kicking 17 points after replacing the injured David Skrela on three minutes, while Lee Byrne scored the game’s only try.
“We have put more importance in the Heineken Cup this season. We are keen to get stuck into them [Leinster],” James said.
Clermont’s first ever semi-final against Leinster will be in Bordeaux on April 29. Ulster take on Edinburgh in Dublin the day before.