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Monday Maul
Toulon are more than Jonny's left boot
Tom Hamilton
April 7, 2014
One legend of the game bids farewell to another © Getty Images

Red cards, rolling mauls, TMOs and Steffon Armitage - the Monday Maul looks back over the key talking points from an eventful weekend of European rugby.

Steffon Armitage lays down England marker

The vociferous Stade Felix Mayol went deathly silent as Jonny Wilkinson limped off during the first-half of their quarter-final against Leinster. Up to that point, he had barely put a foot wrong as he slotted two penalties with ease. But such is the embarrassment of riches at Toulon's disposal, they managed to collectively cover Wilkinson's absence and prove they are more than a one-man band.

The weekend's awards

  • Player: Saracens' Billy Vunipola
  • Coach: Munster's Rob Penney
  • Surprise: The ease at which Munster beat Toulouse
  • Disappointment: that Jared Payne gave Jerome Garces reason to send him off. It looked to be a Heineken Cup tie for the ages.
  • Emotional farewell: The Heineken Cup bid farewell to Brian O'Driscoll, a man who has given everything to the tournament.
  • Try: Hosea Gear's effort for Toulouse against Munster

Despite the reshuffle of Matt Giteau to fly-half and Maxime Mermoz into the centres, they dominated that area of the contest with both Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy missing more tackles than they made. While Giteau did well, Danie Rossouw and Juan Smith were also titanic in the pack.

But standing above all was England's forgotten man at No.8. Steffon Armitage, who is usually found at openside. He was fantastic against Leinster and helped boss the breakdown. England have a superb back-row but Armitage would give them a good run for their money. Due to the 'exceptional circumstances' needed for Armitage to get a call-up, as he is playing in France, if England do encounter an injury or two in the back-row department, they could do a lot worse than bringing Armitage in from the cold.

Jerome Garces right to send-off Jared Payne

At about 5.35pm on Saturday, Twitter was awash with reaction to Jerome Garces' decision to send-off Jared Payne. The call divided Sky Sports' pundits at half-time with Paul Wallace and Alan Quinlan arguing the challenge was only worthy of a yellow card, while Will Greenwood agreed with Garces' call to issue a straight red. Twitter mainly came out on the side of Garces but any objectors or approvers focused their argument around the word 'intention'.

While Payne kept his eyes on the ball and only saw Goode at the last minute, he played the man in the air and tipped him beyond the horizontal. Intent is not important in this instance; Payne's actions put Goode in danger and for that reason Garces was right to issue the red card. The only worry was just how long it took Garces to come to that decision, the fact Goode was stretchered off should not have influenced his call.

But mention also has to be made of just how well Ulster played. The new-look Ravenhill will act as a 16th man for Ulster and they can take huge heart from how far they pushed Saracens, though that will come as small consolation.

Vintage Munster turn back the years

The names may not roll as easy of the tongue as the crops of 2006 and 2008 did, but Munster put in a performance for the ages against Toulouse on Saturday. At the fulcrum of their performance was sheer bloody-mindedness. Even the most fleet-footed of wingers Simon Zebo opted against the odd sidestep or piece of individual skill for his try. Instead, he just ran straight over the top of Jano Vermaak.

It was an exercise in maximising physicality. Toulouse are no shrinking violets, when Louis Picamoles went off they brought on Gillian Galan a figure who resembles the Honey Monster. But even though they sustained the blow of Peter O'Mahony going off, Munster won the tackle area and the collisions. Their driving maul worked, their pick and drives made yards and when ballast was needed, Dave Kilcoyne, CJ Stander and Paul O'Connell all punched holes. They found an intensity we have seldom seen from Munster this year but when they have their support in full voice and a self-belief, they are a match for anyone.

Overuse of TMO

The second-half of Stade Francais' clash with Harlequins went on for nearly 59 minutes, mainly down to the ridiculous overuse of the TMO by referee Leighton Hodges. Almost every ambiguous incident was referred and the game dragged with any momentum sapped from it. The same occurred during Saturday's match between Clermont and Leicester.

Welsh fly-half earns his stripes

The Tigers will not be winning the Heineken Cup this year but they must take huge heart from the manner in which they pushed Clermont. Vern Cotter's team have not lost at home since 2009, a run now totalling 75 matches, but Leicester gave them one almighty scare. Lugovi'i Mulipola was fantastic at tight-head, Ed Slater put in a towering performance, while Blaine Scully was heroic on the wings.

But their hero has to be Owen Williams. The young Welsh fly-half coped admirably in the cauldron of the Stade Marcel Michelin and showed his recent performances for the Tigers were more than mere flashes in the pan. He controlled the match against Northampton in the last round of the Aviva Premiership and did well against Clermont. Wales boss Warren Gatland cannot ignore his claims for a spot on their tour to South Africa this summer.

The Amlin Challenge Cup loses appeal

It was a shame to see teams name heavily changed sides for the weekend's quarter-finals of the second-tier tournament. Stade Francais made 12 changes for their game against Harlequins, while Brive made 14 from the side that beat Clermont last weekend. Bath, Northampton and Sale also fielded much-altered line-ups.

The carrot of qualification to the Heineken Cup is no longer on offer for the winners of the Amlin Challenge Cup and that inevitably swayed their selection calls.

The two Vunipolas

Mako and Billy Vunipola are likely to be England mainstays over the next few years but they experienced contrasting fortunes against Ulster on Saturday. Mako got a bit of a lesson in the arts of the front-row from John Afoa while Billy ended up with the Man of the Match award. Both are still young and will only get better but Mako must learn from experiences like Saturday if he is to be first-choice loose-head for England.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.

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