Seventeen miserable points? Some contrast to the splendour of the Heineken Cup's great flowering in Toulouse a mere 24 hours previously. Biarritz and Sale fought out a bitterly physical quarter-final in San Sebastian yesterday, but the contest was more notable for the scarcity of anything resembling artistic merit.
The Basques scored the one try of the game, and had there been any others fat chance they would have claimed those as well. Sale were competitive enough up front, but distinctly second best when it came to the creative act of attacking rugby.
Not that Biarritz, perhaps the most nakedly ambitious of the élite Tricolore clubs, covered themselves in glory either. They brought some serious power to the party in the wildly contrasting shapes of of Petru Balan, their Romanian prop, and Jérôme Thion, the second-in-command at Test level, but not for the first time in this competition, they both frustrated and disconcerted their own supporters by sitting back at the very moments their opponents were there for the taking.
The Basques are a strange lot, for sure. "They're a difficult team to break down, but I can't say they play a lot of rugby," commented Charlie Hodgson, the Sale outside-half, whose own defensive performance here was every bit as complete as some of the attacking displays that helped him nail down his place as Jonny Wilkinson's successor in the England No 10 jersey. "They never commit numbers to the tackle area, just spread across the field and hit you on the turnover." To think this was, and remains, the club of the wonderful Serge Blanco.
These were the 80 minutes in which French club rugby attempted to re-establish a grip on European business after the loss of Perpignan and, stunningly, the reigning champions of Toulouse from the tournament. Not that he 30,000 Basques who claimed temporary residential rights at the home of the Spanish football club Real Sociedad were thinking of the indignities inflicted upon a bunch of blue-collar Catalans, still less the suffering of the rugby aristocrats from the Midi-Pyrenees. Theirs was a narrower agenda, a celebration of an idea of nationhood that may never bear fruit, but nevertheless binds them together in holy sporting communion.
Nowhere in world rugby is there a crowd quite like the one that confronted Sale a blaze of colour, all blood-red and berets yet the Premiership leaders met their initial target by denying Biarritz a score in the opening quarter, although the big Fijian wing Sereli Bobo might have opened the home account had Daniel Larrechea not body-checked him as he attempted to maximise a lovely chip by Dimitri Yachvili tight to the left touchline. Larrechea, a product of the Basque club Bayonne, was by some distance the least popular player on view from the moment he took the field and after his assault on Bobo, he was cast even more firmly in the role of villain. He escaped serious censure, however, and as Yachvili fluffed the penalty, the visitors emerged from this minor crisis unscathed.
Things looked even better as the scoreboard began to move at the start of the second quarter. Hodgson swapped penalties with Yachvili before Biarritz lost their intelligent and influential captain, Thomas Lièvremont, to a leg injury. But despite Sale's committed work at close quarters, principally from the imported forwards Sébastien Bruno and Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, the Biarritz midfield backs began to find space, and it was no particular surprise when Damien Traille, their international centre, orchestrated a long attack that ended with Bobo running clear of Mark Cueto and claiming a try near the left flag.
Yachvili had already kicked his second penalty and might have had a third had he not been off the field at the end of the half. Alan Lewis, the referee, pointed the scrum-half firmly in the direction of the sin-bin after objecting to his questionable antics at a fiery ruck in the Biarritz 22. Although the Basques promptly earned themselves another shot at goal, Traille spurned the opportunity. Sale reached the interval 11-3 down, but somewhat relieved.
That sense of reassurance took some knocks in the minutes after the restart. Philippe Saint-André, the Sale coach, decided Larrechea was too fragile by half in his attempts to play his way through the crowd's hostility and withdrew him in favour of Steve Hanley a move that saw Jason Robinson relocate to full-back. Almost immediately, a daft error by Sililo Martens allowed Benôit August to free Imanol Harinordoquy down the left, and only a marvellous cover tackle from Hodgson prevented another Biarritz try.
Hodgson needed to be at his most alert again when Cueto, suddenly struggling for form after months and years of doing next to nothing wrong, fumbled a pass in attack and allowed his opponents to hack downfield. The outside-half narrowly beat the threatening Bobo to the ball; but for his intervention, Sale would have been seven crucial points worse off. Yachvili missed a penalty, too. The English team were still in touch, but the sound of creaking timber was there for all to hear.
It did not crack not quite. In fact, Hodgson cut the arrears to five points with a penalty in the last couple of minutes of normal time. They would get no closer, though, and if they are honest with themselves, they did not deserve to do so.
Biarritz: Try Bobo. Penalties Yachvili 2. Sale: Penalties Hodgson 2.
Biarritz: N Brusque; J-B Gobelet, P Bidabé (F Martin Arramburu, 79), D Traille, S Bobo; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili; P Balan, B August, C Johnston (B Lecouls, 54), J Thion, D Couzinet (O Olibeau, 54), S Betsen, I Harinordoquy, T Lièvremont (capt, T Dusautoir, 25).
Sale: D Larrechea (S Hanley, 45); M Cueto (V Courrent, 73), M Taylor, E Seveali'i, J Robinson (capt); C Hodgson, S Martens (R Wigglesworth, 58); B Coutts, S Bruno (A Titterrell, 58), S Turner (B Stewart, 58), I Fernandez Lobbe (C Day, 46-54), D Schofield (Day, 77), J White, M Lund, C Jones.
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).
Heineken Cup draw
* SEMI-FINALS Weekend of 22/23 April
Biarritz v Bath
Leinster v Munster
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