Like Munster some 24 hours previously, Bristol needed to beat a highly-rated Heineken Cup act by a hatful of tries if they were to upset the applecart and qualify for the tournament's knock-out stage at their first attempt. But Bristol are not Munster, and the Memorial Ground is very definitely not Thomond Park. Indeed, this notoriously unattractive and unwelcoming stadium has so little in common with the sporting cathedral of Limerick that the West Countrymen are desperate to switch out the lights and leave the place for good. As of yesterday, they can concentrate on doing just that.
There will be no more European rugby at the old venue this year, and if Bristol's move across town to Ashton Gate goes ahead, there will be no more full stop. There was never the remotest possibility of them putting eight tries and 40-odd points past the Dubliners – some sceptics would not back them to score eight in a season, let alone in one go – so they must settle for cursing the lack of application that cost them a result at Swansea, the pool laughing stocks. Had they played anything like as well at St Helen's last month as they did at times yesterday, they would have been in the quarter-final mix, and in the money, too.
Leinster certainly know what they are about, and they were good value for their four-try victory here – a result that completed a clean sweep of pool wins and established them as No 1 seeds, with a home tie against Biarritz, the French champions, in April. They are far from frightening in the tight five; Bristol, with Julian White in particularly ruthless mood, gave them quite a hurry-up in the scrums. But with Eric Miller operating at full throttle in the loose and Brian O'Driscoll topping the bill in a back line lavishly equipped with natural finishers, they can rise above their shortcomings in the grunt-and-groan department.
Bristol were excellent in a number of respects: their Argentinian half-backs, Agustin Pichot and Felipe Contepomi, made things happen on a regular basis, and their wings, Phil Christophers and David Rees, contributed a quality try apiece during a second quarter largely dominated by White's aggressive scrummaging. The England selectors will be profoundly interested in the tight head's performance, not least because his one obvious rival for the Test shirt, Phil Vickery of Gloucester, took something of a pasting in Munster. On this evidence, White should certainly make the match-day 22 for the Six Nations opener with France next month.
Yet Leinster were not seriously inconvenienced by being on the back foot for lengthy spells. Aidan McCullen's opening try after 10 minutes was entirely against the run of play, and while Bristol reacted to this setback by huffing and puffing their way upfield, they immediately found themselves another score to the bad when O'Driscoll capitalised on clean breaks from Christian Warner and Denis Hickie to claim a nicely worked try to the right of the posts.
There were only five points in it at the interval, and McCullen was in the cooler after fiddling with some Bristol possession from an offside position. However, the home side failed to fathom a way of breaking down the Leinster defence, and when Contepomi was sent to the sin-bin for sticking his errant hands in a ruck – he has a fair bit of previous when it comes to this type of offence – a suitably repentant McCullen wrapped it up with a second try eight minutes from time.
Bristol: Tries Christophers, Rees; Conversion Contepomi. Leinster: Tries McCullen 2, O'Driscoll, Horgan; Conversion O'Meara; Penalty O'Meara.
Bristol: L Best; D Rees, A Higgins, D Gibson, P Christophers (M Shaw 30); F Contepomi, A Pichot; A Sheridan (D Crompton 57), P Johnstone, J White, G Archer (capt, S Morgan 65), A Brown, M Salter (M Lipman 65), R Oakley, R Beattie.
Leinster: G Dempsey (D Quinlan 29); G D'Arcy, B O'Driscoll (N Spooner 79), S Horgan, D Hickie; C Warner, B O'Meara (B O'Riordan 82); R Corrigan (capt), S Byrne (G Hickie 73), E Byrne (P Coyle 68), A McCullen (A Kearney 82), M O'Kelly, E Miller, K Gleeson, V Costello (D Dillon 80).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
Leinster v Biarritz
Leicester v Munster
Toulouse v Northampton
Llanelli v Perpignan
Ties to be played 11/12/13 April
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