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Leinster, Munster secure home quarterfinals in European Cup

Having already booked their place, Leinster's breathless 11-11 draw with London Irish at Twickenham secured the cup holders a home quarter-final for the first time since 2005. Their opponents, the powerful French club Clermont Auvergne, will pose a severe test when the games come around in early April, but playing at home in Dublin will be a major advantage.

With the results dice rolling in one direction and then the other, Munster's edgy 12-9 win over Northampton at Thomond Park means that the two teams will now meet once again at the same venue in the last eight. As for Connacht, they will take on another French side, Bourgoin, in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals in Galway.

Leinster, for whom Gordon D'Arcy was in scintillating form, looked like they had blown their chance of securing that home advantage when they trailed London Irish by 11-8 going into the last couple of minutes, however, a superb drop goal by out-half Jonny Sexton gave them the draw they needed.

Perhaps, understandably, given the high-stakes nature of the game, Leinster then lived dangerously in the dying seconds when Chris Malone missed two drop goal attempts which would have won the match for London Irish.

"A lot of players were a bit disappointed that we didn't win the game, because that's what we wanted," said captain, Leo Cullen, "but looking at the bigger picture we have to pretty satisfied with the draw as that's what we needed to get the job done."

Munster were equally fortunate as four Ronan O'Gara penalties gave them a hard-earned win over Northampton which copperfastened a place in the knockout stages of the competition for the 12th season in a row. Under pressure in the scrums, Munster had to dig deep to stay in the game especially during the second half.

"When we look back to round one and the position we were in after losing at Northampton, it was only just after being beaten by Leinster at the RDS, so we were on a poor run," said man of the match, Alan Quinlan. "But now, we've topped the group. Okay, you don't always get those perfect games where everything goes right just because it's Thomond Park. It was more of a kicking game, the flow didn't happen, but it's a goal achieved."

As anticipated, there was frustration for Ulster whose outside chance of qualification failed to materialise despite an impressive 28-10 victory over Bath. Although they ran in three second half tries at the Rec through Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave and Paddy Wallace, Ulster came up short of the necessary four tries, and anyway, Stade Francais managed to secure a bonus point in their 9-7 defeat by Edinburgh which was sufficient to top the pool.

At one stage it looked as if Ulster might be one of the best pool runners-up and qualify for the Challenge Cup, but in the end the places went to Cardiff, Scarlets and Gloucester.

"We have to be happy with the win and Andrew Trimble's try was something special," explained coach, Brian McLaughlin. "It's the first time we've won in the European Cup in England. Team captain, Stephen Ferris, said he was pleased with the win, but that fatigue cost the players the chance of a bonus point. "We went close to scoring four tries, but in the end the boys were just knackered."

Meanwhile, Connacht assured themselves of a number one seeding going into the Challenge Cup last eight with a facile 66-0 win in Madrid. The top ranking means that if Michael Bradley's side win their home quarter-final, the will also have home advantage in the semi-finals.

"It represents a lot of progress," said coach Bradley. "It was a tall order when the pools were drawn, especially as the new rules meant that only the top team would go through."

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