Rugby Union: Brive have the knack; European Cup final: Lamaison and company have frightening quality as Bath bank on all-American boy

Jonathan Davies suggests the holders' priceless ability under pressure will be vital
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The Independent Online
ANY rugby player who has attempted to kick a vital goal in the dying minutes of a big game will tell you how fierce the pressure is. When victory for your team depends solely on you slotting the ball between the posts, there is no such thing as a simple kick.

That's how it was for Christophe Lamaison of Brive in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse. Not for the first time this season, Brive fought back to score a last-minute try and level the scores. Lamaison needed only to convert for the tie to be won. It was not difficult - a little left of the posts and ideal for a right-footer.

He missed it and as the game moved into extra time I really felt for him. But fate hadn't finished with him. Right at the end of extra time, the same thing happened. He had a kick from almost exactly the same place to win the match. This time he made no mistake and I remember thinking: "You lucky sod."

Not many get a second chance like that. Had Brive lost, he would have had to live with the memory of that miss for a long time. As it is, no one remembers it. Mind you, the failure of the first kick would have doubled the pressure on the second.

In many ways, that sums up Brive to me. Whatever the situation, they always seem to have someone able to do the right thing at the right time. You wouldn't say they've had an easy ride to the final. They were in the hardest qualifying group, which is proved by the fact that it has produced both finalists and also contained Pontypridd, who were far and away the unluckiest team in the competition.

Their visit to Brive will be remembered for notorious reasons and, sadly, it will be forgotten how close Ponty came to winning. But in that game, as in several others, the French team have shown that knack of being able to raise their game even when they've looked down and out. It is a terrific quality to have.

They are not all that big a team physically but they are highly mobile and very clever, both individually and collectively. Being able to change your game almost by instinct when things are not going well is an ability few teams possess. They are also very hard and determined, and you see this especially in the line-outs. Many teams tend to make only a token effort on the opposition throws but Brive go out to destroy on every occasion.

This was one of the foundations of their victory over Leicester in last year's final. Their destruction of Martin Johnson's superiority in the air was cruelly effective. They may have more trouble stopping Bath's ace jumper Dan Lyle but there's no doubt they'll be trying to destroy him as well.

Brive's back line is packed with players who are not only stars but are flexible enough to appear in various roles even in the same game. Alain Penaud, Lamaison, Philippe Carbonneau, Lisandro Arbizu, David Venditti, Sebastian Viars... they haven't got room for them all. And added to them are those flying brothers on the wings, Sebastian and Jerome Carrat.

Not only are they all great ball players, most of them have an excellent kicking game. It is a big plus not having to feed the ball to the same player for the big punts downfield. As for kicking at goal; if Lamaison gets flustered, as he sometimes does, they can turn to Arbizu.

The pack are just as proficient with that awesome back-row of Loic van der Linden, Olivier Magne and the No 8, Francois Duboisset. But, just in case you think I've written off the opposition, let me say that Bath can match them for individual qualities in every position. Jeremy Guscott's return to the three-quarter line makes a big difference and will take pressure off Mike Catt. With Matt Perry coming into the line from full- back - and Ieuan Evans and Adedayo Adebayo present on the wings - the variety of their thrusts will be just as dangerous as Brive's.

Bath are a similar sort of all-round, all-action side and on their day can be just as bewildering to play against. I just feel that Brive have the edge in their ability to spirit victories out of nothing. Of course, there is also the matter of home advantage. Bordeaux will be full of the French atmosphere that our clubs find so intimidating. But most of the Bath team are seasoned internationals and should be well prepared for it.

I trust Bath haven't been unsettled by the ear-biting allegations or all the talk of new signings. Most of all, I hope for good weather. Too many of these games have been played in dour conditions which have tended to dictate tactics. Give these teams a running pitch and it should be a fantastic game.

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