John O’Connor has picked 15 players that contributed to an outstanding pool stages of the Heineken Cup.
15. Rob Kearney (Leinster)
You would be hard pressed to find a better full-back under the high ball than Rob Kearney and Ireland’s number 15 once again was instrumental in helping his team to top their pool, capping his sides’ successful group stage with a try against Montpellier; his fourth of the competition. Kearney’s try scoring was on display, not only in impressive run away victories such as Leinster’s 52-27 win over Bath, but also in hard fought battles against Glasgow in Scotland, when his try helped open up the Warriors to eventual defeat.
14. Andrew Trimble (Ulster)
Ulster and Trimble’s stand-out performance of the pool stages was their massive bonus point 41-7 win over the Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill, in which the Irish winger scored two almost identical tries, showing his intelligence and athleticism at the far corner to avoid being put out into touch. Trimble’s pace when he gets into his stride is a real danger to any team he faces up against.
13. Aurélien Rougerie (Clermont)
The captain of Clermont and veteran French centre didn’t score any tries during the group stages of the Heineken Cup but his awareness and ability to create space for his teammates allowed the likes of his centre partner Wesley Fofana to score three tries. Rougerie will be a threat to Ireland in the Six Nations as well as any Irish team he may come up against in the knockout stages of the competition.
12. Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster)
With Brian O’Driscoll missing for this season with a shoulder injury, it was necessary for his long-time centre partner to stand up and be counted, and D’Arcy certainly did that. With Fergus McFadden and Eoin Malley coming in to partner D’Arcy at centre, the veteran Ireland player was a calming influence in the creative department of the Leinster midfield and allowed McFadden and O’Malley the space to open up opposition defences.
11. Simon Zebo (Munster)
The 20 year-old Irish winger is a real prospect for his country and an asset to his Munster team in attack. He proved his try-scoring ability and flair with a man of the match performance against Northampton, in which his hat-trick of tries helped seal a massive win for Munster at the home of last year’s Heineken Cup finalists. It’s no surprise that Declan Kidney has drafted Zebo into the Wolfhounds squad to play the England Saxons before the Six Nations.
10. Ronan O’Gara (Munster)
The ever reliable Munster out-half will most likely be remembered in the pool stages of this tournament for his match-winning drop goal in the dying seconds of his sides’ game with Northampton at Thomond Park, after a flawless 39 phase attack. O’Gara did it again next week against Castres in a game that was heading for a draw, much to the despair of the French side. The 34 year-old may be heading into the latter stages of his career but as he added another 91 points to his tally of all time leading scorer in the Heineken Cup, ROG still has plenty to offer.
9. Morgan Parra (Clermont)
The French scrum half is usually opposition fans favourite player to hate but France and Clermont fans must be extremely happy Parra is on their side. Ulster found this out the hard way when Parra’s effortless kicking helped Clermont overcome Brian McLaughlin’s side in the final game of the pool stages. The 23 year-old already has 36 caps for France and if Leinster and Clermont make it through the quarter finals, they will have an extremely tough task getting past Parra and Clermont in France.
1. Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff)
The news of Wales’ loosehead prop injuring his knee ligaments in Cardiff Blues last game of the pool stages, a 36-30 win over Racing Metro, will come as a blow to the Welsh and a boost to Ireland ahead of the Six Nations. Jenkins was an ever present in Cardiff’s Heineken Cup campaign so far and their try-against column reading just five tries conceded reflects the influence the Welsh prop has on the teams he plays for.
2. Ti’i Paulo (Clermont)
The big New Zealander hooker was used from the bench a number of times in the pool stages by Clermont and his devastating effect was demonstrated against Ulster, when he scored the only try of the game as a substitute. Ulster looked like their defence might have held out against Clermont’s pack but the sheer power of Paulo could not be stopped and his presence was enough to put Clermont into a home quarter final.
3. John Afoa (Ulster)
Ulster’s pack have excelled in the Heineken Cup so far and their scrum has been helped immensely by their 28 year old prop. Strong performances were needed at home if Ulster wished to qualify for the quarters and their scrum needed to be strong against the likes of Clermont and Leicester. Afoa’s performances against both teams were excellent, especially against Leicester as the scrum showed real dominance against a strong English side.
4. Donnacha Ryan (Munster)
The Munster lock has managed to displace the long-standing provincial and national partnership of Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell, which is no mean feat. The younger Donnacha is proving his worth alongside O’Connell in the second row and big performances are expected from him if he hopes to stay ahead of O’Callaghan at no. 4.
5. Paul O’Connell (Munster)
Much like O’Gara at number 10, it is hard to see Munster without their talismanic captain. O’Connell epitomises Munster’s never-say-die attitude and, like ROG, this was summed up in the Northampton game at Thomond Park when O’Connell led by example and absolutely refused to be beaten at home. Munster started slowly, grinding out results but their attack is starting to click into gear and with Big Paul as a platform to work off, his presence will ensure his sides’ best chances in the remainder of the competition.
6. John Muldoon (Connacht)
It’s not easy for Connacht to compete with the likes of Leinster, Munster and Ulster but it is even more difficult to do so with Europe’s elite. John Muldoon made it look easy in his sides’ final pool game against Aviva Premiership leaders Harlequins. The number 6 helped end Connacht’s abysmal run 14 games without a win. The Portumna man has made huge strides for Rugby in the province since he was a sub on the Galway minor hurling team in 2000 against Cork.
7. Chris Henry (Ulster)
Chris Henry has been included in the Irish Wolfhounds squad before the Six Nations begins and, if the Ulster flanker can repeat his Heineken Cup performances, he may catch the eye of Declan Kidney. Like many of his Ulster teammates, one of his best performances was keeping Leicester to a low whimper at Ravenhill as well as subduing Clermont to a defeat in Ulster’s opening game at home.
8. Netani Talei (Edinburgh)
While Edinburgh are at the wrong end of the table in the RaboDirect Pro12, they flourished in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup, with no small thanks to their number 8, Fijian Netani Talei. His three tries, including one in their last game against London Irish, helped his team top their group. Talei and his teammates will have to be at the peak of their powers to beat Toulouse in their home quarter final.