I heard it first on RTÉ Radio sport: the possibility of an Irish rugby invasion of London at the start of April. And so it has come to pass. The remaining Heineken Cup pool fixtures this afternoon have deprived Ulster of a home draw in the quarter final. Instead Mark Anscombe’s team will be travelling to play Saracens on the weekend of April 5th/6th/7th just after Easter. They have been coached since 2009 by Mark McCall. He used to be in charge of the Ulster side so he will know the squad well and what to expect from the opponents. Their home games up to now have been played at Vicarage Road, the home of Watford FC. But they are about to move to a new stadium at Barnet with an artificial pitch. If they are to use the Allianz stadium at Copthall for the game, they will require permission from the local authority to increase the capacity from 10,000 to 15,000.
The other Irish side in the quarter-finals will be Munster, who will be up against Aviva Premiership champions Harlequins, coached by former Irish international Conor O’Shea. They had home and away victories over Connacht in pool 3. Their matches are normally at The Stoop at Twickenham, beside the RFU headquarters. Meanwhile the Heineken Cup holders Leinster despite a win yesterday are out of the competition but now get a place in the Amlin Cup. They will play another London side, Wasps, who play at the Adams stadium in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Stand up for the Irishmen! The semi-final draw made at Leicester this evening produced the following pairings:-
Semi-final 1: Saracens or Ulster Rugby v Toulon or Leicester Tigers
Semi-final 2: ASM Clermont Auvergne or Montpellier v Harlequins or Munster
It was also a busy afternoon in Gaelic games and at the Athletic grounds in Armagh (attendance 4155), the line-up was decided for the McKenna Cup final at the same venue under the floodlights next Saturday evening at 7:30pm. Monaghan beat Down 1-12 to 0-12 and Tyrone beat Fermanagh 2-09 to 0-07. So Monaghan will get a chance to win their fourteenth McKenna Cup if they can manage to beat neighbours Tyrone.
- Four points in the bag for Ulster
ULSTER returned to their winning ways at Ravenhill, defeating Connacht 22-3 in the RaboDirect PRO12 league. But the scoreline did not reflect how close Connacht came to upsetting the home team. Both sides exchanged penalties early on. Having brought a New Zealander along to watch the match I was particualrly interested in how new signing and World Cup medallist from Auckland John Afoa would perform. He got a great cheer when he came out onto the pitch and was soon demonstrating his strengths in the front row of the scrum. Indeed it was from the scrum just before half time that a move began which resulted in winger Craig Gilroy latching onto an inside pass from Ian Humphreys and then going over in the left corner to make it 8-3 to Ulster at the break. The home side began the second half intent on pressurising Connacht and two minutes in, good work by Rory Best, Dan Tuohy and Afoa created an opportunity for Ireland prop Tom Court to score their second try, with Humphreys adding the conversion. For the rest of the half, though, the battle was extremely tough as Connacht did their best to pull back the twelve point gap. Tempers flared at times but the referee kept the game under control well and no-one was sin-binned or shown a red card. However the medics were kept busy with a series of injuries to key Ulster players Stephen Ferris (ankle), Tom Court (knee), and skipper Johann Muller. Perhaps coach Brian McLaughlin had the risk of an injury in mind when he substituted Afoa before the end and the Kiwi was applauded for his first performance in an Ulster jersey. Additional time was being played when Ian Humphreys broke through the Connacht defence to score under the posts and add a quick conversion as the final whistle blew. Ulster 22 Connacht 3. The result means that with eight games played, Ulster are in mid-table, nine points behind the Ospreys and Leinster, who saw off the challenge of Munster at the RDS.
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