Rugby Union: Ponty driven mad by Brive's schizophrenia

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The Independent Online
Brive 25

Pontypridd 20

The beauty and the beast, the majestic and the malicious, the unmatchable and the unspeakable. Connoisseurs of rugby cliches have spent years stereotyping the French game as a contradictory mish-mash, a menacing exercise in sporting schizophrenia, and while les tricolores are understandably resentful of the reputation that now precedes their every move, their very own European champions are not exactly helping to put the record straight.

Alain Penaud's thoroughbred Brive outfit reached new and astronomical heights of paradoxical behaviour in Saturday's Heineken Cup play-off at the Parc Municipal des Sports, although it was by no means a case of another French side entering the pressure arena with a double dummy scissors move in one hand and a knuckle-duster in the other. Far from it. Seven weeks on from the Quentin Tarantino nonsense in Le Bar Toulzac, neither the hosts nor Pontypridd allowed themselves the merest whiff of a violent transgression.

No. On this occasion, Brive effortlessly bridged the gap between the sublime and the ridiculous rather than the fair and the foul. For 40 glistening first-half minutes, they were brilliant; Didier Casadei was in murderous mood at the set-pieces, Olivier Magne won the breakaway battle by a country mile and through Penaud, Christophe Lamaison, David Venditti and, especially, a rejuvenated Sebastien Viars, they could bask in the full range of skills out wide.

And the second 40? A shambles. No other word for it. From 18-0 up at the break - less than flawless finishing had denied them an advantage of significantly greater proportions - Brive conceded 20 points in 11 minutes and plumbed such depths of pure panic that Neil Jenkins will still be wondering how he failed to secure a famous, nay historic, victory for his colleagues.

Two eminently kickable penalty chances passed him by in a knife-edge final quarter - precisely the kind of opportunities he converted so metronomically during the Lions' South African summer - and his dejection spoke volumes as Jim Fleming, a wise and sympathetic referee in a delicate situation, brought this often torrid three-match rubber to a conclusion.

Jenkins was, however, quick to suggest that Brive might make life seriously difficult for Wasps, the English champions, when the two sides meet in next Sunday's quarter-final at Loftus Road. "We've proved we can play at the highest European level but you have to say that when they play like they did in the first half, Brive are some force," the Ponty captain said.

"Don't think for a moment that we were holding back in the early stages. What happened between us seven weeks ago was not a factor from our point of view; we were right up for it and ready to give it everything, not tentative or subdued because of past events. They just didn't let us into the game in the first half. Simple as that."

According to Lamaison, who looks more like the most complete inside centre in European rugby every time he takes the field, Brive allowed themselves to become "destablilised". He was spot on; well as Ponty performed after the interval, the champions' problems were largely self-inflicted, manufactured in the mysterious corners of their own fragile mindset. The furious one- in, all-in dust-up sparked by Dale McIntosh and Lionel Mallier in the first half of the opening match between the two clubs on 14 September gave Ponty a precious foothold in the French psyche and try as they might, Brive never found a satisfactory way of fully re-establishing their mental equilibrium.

Once Jenkins, who had not been granted a single sighting of the Brive posts during the opening period, cut the deficit by a third with two confident penalties on 45 and 48 minutes, the old doubts began to resurface among the Frenchmen. They had fairly slaughtered these cursed adversaries by playing the rugby of the gods throughout the first half, yet still they could not shake them from their shirt-tails.

Suddenly, almost in a flash, the contest was alive. Mathew Lloyd took full advantage of some lamentable close-range defence to put Mark Spiller, his back-row partner, over to the left of the Brive posts and when the third member of Ponty's breakaway triumvirate, Martyn Williams, romped joyously into the enemy 22 to create a fine score for Dafydd James, the Welshmen were two points to the good.

Sadly for them, Jenkins' uncharacteristic radar slippage gave Brive one last window of opportunity. They took it with both hands; Penaud sent a brute of a garryowen hovering over the Ponty line and when Gareth Wyatt, so impressive in many ways as a makeshift full-back, failed to gather it, Magne swept up the debris and sent Jerome Carrat on a stuttering, stop-start scuttle to the left corner.

"We might have won had we been allowed to field our full side," moaned Dennis John, the Ponty coach, in reference to the French gendarmerie banning orders denying McIntosh, Phil John and Andre Barnard access to the Correze region. (All three players are under investigation in the wake of the pandemonium in Le Bar Toulzac). But John was scarcely being fair to those who did take the field. Agreed, Ponty could have used McIntosh's power. But Jonathan Evans was spectacularly effective at hooker and it is doubtful whether Barnard would have made the line-up anyway.

There was a final blast of hot air from Brive, too. "We prefer to play English sides, who have greater respect for the laws of the game," shrugged Lamaison, whose personal desire to see the back of Ponty once and for all led him to sprint full pelt from the pitch at the final whistle without waiting for a single handshake, let alone a fond au revoir or an exchange of phone numbers.

A sour end to a sorry saga? Perhaps. But it was a memorable enough match and given the unique cross-flow of bad blood between the rival camps, the embattled Heineken Cup board will have happily settled for a mild verbal spat rather than Le Toulzac Revisited.

Brive: Tries Lamaison, Travers, Carrat; Conversions Lamaison 2; Penalties Lamaison 2. Pontypridd: Tries Spiller, James; Conversions Jenkins 2; Penalties Jenkins 2.

Brive: S Viars; P Bomati, D Venditti, C Lamaison, J Carrat; A Penaud (capt), P Carbonneau; D Casadei, L Travers, R Crespy, E Alegret, Y Manhes (P Lubungu, 49), L van der Linden (L Mallier, 54), F Duboisset (R Sonnes, 50), O Magne.

Pontypridd: G Wyatt; G Lewis, S Lewis (J Lewis, 67), D James, P Ford; N Jenkins (capt), P John; N Eynon, J Evans, M Griffiths (A Griffiths, 68), G Prosser, M Rowley, M Spiller, M Lloyd (G Lewis, 73), M Williams.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).