The penultimate round of 2018/19 Heineken Champions Cup pool fixtures produced yet more stunning games, noteworthy moments and talking points.
From Belfast to Kingsholm, the south of France to Ireland there were a number of standout incidents this week.
We look through what caught the eye below…
Game of the Weekend
In terms of sheer entertainment value, Ulster v Racing 92 from the Kingspan in Belfast on Saturday was a fantastic European encounter.
We were treated to a total of seven tries between the pair in a topsy-turvy game full of excitement and quality – and one in which Ulster ultimately won 26-22 in front of a raucous home support.
The Irish province simply had to win to stand any potential chance of a quarter-final place, and though they put in undoubtedly their best performance of the season to date, they couldn’t shake last season’s Champions Cup finalists off their tail all game.
Indeed, tries from Robert Baloucoune (on his European Cup debut) and Jacob Stockdale, in addition to a Billy Burns penalty inside the first 15 minutes crowned a quite sensational start for Ulster, full of intensity which saw them lead 13-0.
But almost out of nothing, Racing showed their lethal qualities as two tries in seven minutes from Virimi Vakatawa and Simon Zebo brought them back to within a score.
Stockdale struck again in the second period to give Ulster some breathing room, but Racing would finish the stronger, scoring through Brice Dulin and Teddy Iribaren to come within one point at 23-22.
In a crackling atmosphere Ulster managed to force themselves over the line, however, with Will Addison adding a late penalty and with it, hope of progression. Racing still left with two match points of their own – We may yet see both sides in the quarters.
Performance of the Weekend
For quality, the display of Joey Carbery and Munster away at Gloucester on Friday night gets our vote this week.
Having lost away to Castres in Round 4, Munster knew they had to travel to Kingsholm and come away with victory – what even they wouldn’t have expected was to come away with the emphatic 41-15 win they produced.
Out-half Carbery was majestic, conjuring up two assists and producing 26 points himself in the victory courtesy of two tries, two penalties and five conversions – finishing 100 per cent off the kicking tee for the third game in succession.
Whether it was playmaking of Carbery, the control and quality of kicking from Conor Murray, the lineout defence of Peter O’Mahony, breakdown work of Tadhg Beirne, workrate of CJ Stander, pace and energy of Andrew Conway and Keith Earls, in addition to far more, there was supreme quality all over the pitch from Munster.
They still need to beat Exeter next week at Thomond Park to progress, and even that might not be enough for a home quarter-final, but regardless, Friday was a statement performance and really showed what the two-time winners are capable of.
A note too for Edinburgh, who travelled to Toulon on Saturday and picked up a vital victory – one which may mean they host Munster in a potential quarter rather than having to travel…
Try of the Weekend
We were treated to a massive 65 tries between the 20 teams and 10 matches of Champions Cup action in Round 5, but our winner for try of the week goes to Ulster’s Stockdale for his magnificent second effort against Racing.
Picking up the ball within his own half off a scrum, the Ireland wing sidestepped past Olivier Klemenczak before breaking ahead, chipping on with a crisp-left foot strike, showing tremendous pace and then stepping inside to read the bounce quicker than three Racing defenders.
It was a quite brilliant try at a critical time in the match for Ulster. There are very, very few players in world rugby currently who would be able to pick up the ball where Stockdale did and go on to score a try.
What a talent!
Moment of the Weekend
Ulster and Munster may have put in highly impressive team displays over the weekend, but in terms of one outstanding moment, that has to go to Edinburgh’s Bill Mata.
The Fijian No 8 is having a wonderful season and against Toulon at the Stade Mayol on Saturday, he fashioned an offload so good, so outrageous even, that it almost must be seen to be believed!
Breaking up through the middle of the pitch, Mata flung a one-handed reverse pass over his left shoulder into the path of onrushing centre James Johnstone, who would sprint on to score a crucial try as part of the 28-17 victory.
It utterly bamboozled the Toulon defence and was a remarkable piece of skill.
Amidst another marvellous weekend of European rugby, there was one real negative with Racing back Zebo later claiming he’d been allegedly abused by Ulster supporters at the Kingspan – with the abuse potentially of a racial nature.
Zebo had also, quite curiously, been booed by a minority of the Ulster support each time he touched the ball on Saturday – perhaps in relation to a positively minor incident between himself, Ulster youngster Michael Lowry and referee Nigel Owens during the Racing vs Ulster clash in Paris back in October.
Talking Point of the Weekend?
And so onto the major talking point to come out of the weekend: Who will make the final eight?
Saracens are already there, while Racing 92 and Leinster are within touching distance too. The final remaining home quarter-final slot is likely to go to either Edinburgh or Munster – if the Scottish side can beat Montpellier, who are also in the mix to top the Pool, at home on Friday night, they can’t be caught.
Exeter could yet win Pool 2 if they travel to Munster, win and deny the home side a losing bonus-point. While Glasgow Warriors, Toulouse and Ulster are all one win away from booking a last eight place – almost certainly as Pool runners-up.
There are 10 sides vying for eight places and four home quarter-finals – it should make for a cracking weekend!