Biarritz 18 Bath 9: Ashton's impending exit compounds misery at Bath

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The Independent Online

It was an old-fashioned semi-final, won in an old-fashioned way - penalty after penalty, with a solitary drop-goal paying lip-service to variety. Yet the shock of the new was overwhelming in the heart of Basque country. Serge Blanco, the crown prince of attacking rugby, and Patrice Lagisquet, one of his principal courtiers, could be seen celebrating a victory forged in a creative vacuum, while a team coached by Brian Ashton spent the second half suffering from try-scoring amnesia. And then there was Danny Grewcock, cast in the twin roles of helpless victim and blessed peacemaker. Truly, the world is a stranger place than we know.

The fact that Grewcock's idea of anger management mirrors Oliver Reed's approach to teetotalism may cast a shadow of doubt over his account of the volcanic punch-up that erupted shortly after the hour-mark on Saturday. But he said what he said in an effort to illuminate the darkness of the moment, and we must take him at face value.

"There was a scuffle between Andy Beattie and two French players," he explained, "so I stepped in to calm the situation." Er, OK. And then? "The scuffle continued," he concluded, innocently.

A couple of points here. To apply the word "scuffle" to the conflagration in San Sebastian is akin to describing the French Revolution as a minor adjustment to the status quo. It is also reasonable to suggest that Petru Balan, the foursquare Romanian prop who found himself on the painful end of Grewcock's public-spiritedness, may have problems with the translation of "calm". Both men were sent to the sin-bin as a result of their excesses, and while the ever-inscrutable Grewcock sat on one bench contemplating the injustices of life, Balan sat on an adjacent one contemplating the small iceberg packed around the swollen remnants of his right eye. "If this is peace," he must have said to himself, "I think I'll stick to war."

Yet Grewcock, whose efforts at the epicentre of Bath's forward effort were nothing short of magnificent, was more sinned against than sinner. He was badly gouged around the left eye towards the end of the first half - fingers were pointed, so to speak, at the Biarritz captain, Benoît August, who duly rejected any suggestion of intent - and spent the remainder of the game in considerable discomfort. Of this incident, he said: "If anything happened, it was a genuine accident." He is a man of few words, this Grewcock, none of them accusatory.

Bath had most of the weaponry required to win this tie and earn themselves a place in next season's Heineken Cup. What they did not have was Dimitri Yachvili. Ashton, the Bath coach, had waxed lyrical about the Biarritz scrum-half during the build-up to the game, describing him as a "game-breaker", a "potential match-winner". There was no potential about it at the weekend. Yachvili started brilliantly and got better, to the point where at times he seemed to be operating in a different zone to the other 29 participants. He created, he cajoled, he cleaned up after his colleagues. Some of his continuity work tight to the touchline bordered on the extraordinary. And to cap it all, he kicked his goals.

It is safe to say Biarritz would not have reached their first Heineken Cup final had he been anything less than accurate, for the try-scoring option was not open to them. They possess some high-calibre footballers - Nicolas Brusque is nobody's fool, Damien Traille is a diamond, Jean-Baptiste Gobelet and Sireli Bobo are are hardly the worst pair of wings in the world - but in possession, the Basques are almost anti-French. They were cautious enough in beating Sale at the quarter-final stage. On Saturday, it was as though they were petrified of themselves. When Lagisquet, their coach, had the nerve to describe Bath as "negative", his audience almost died laughing.

Ashton was deeply disappointed at the outcome, not only because Biarritz did so little to win the game, but because his own side butchered so many chances after the interval. "When we finally started playing in the way we said we'd play, we created opportunities," he commented with a sorry shake of the head, and he was right to rue his team's lack of composure at the most important moments. David Bory froze after making the cleanest of incisions in the Biarritz defence; Salesi Finau fumbled with the line only a metre or two away; Chris Malone mishandled when a clean take-and-give would have maximised a two-man overlap down the right.

Unfortunately for the West Countrymen, they were more reliable in securing points for their opponents. Time and again, they committed transgressions of the most bone-headed kind; time and again, Yachvili punished them to the tune of three points. Traille broke the sequence by dropping a goal seven minutes into the second half, but even this was a direct result of Beattie infringing at a ruck. "I am," Ashton said, "bloody angry about some of the penalties we conceded. We talked about putting Biarritz under pressure and achieved the reverse."

Now they are aware of their fate - they will be slumming it in the European Challenge Cup next season - Bath can concentrate on other matters, not the least of which will be the search for a new coaching team to guide them through the 2006-07 campaign. Michael Foley is off to Wallaby land, Richard Graham is heading for Saracens, and if the word on the street is correct, Ashton is England-bound. Assuming this is confirmed by the Rugby Football Union over the next few days, the Recreation Ground will feel like a morgue.

Olly Barkley, the midfielder who recently re-committed himself to the club largely on the grounds that he would be working with Ashton, was the most distraught of the Bath players on Saturday. On the face of it, this was because he had given everything of himself, heart and soul and body, only to finish second. Yet he may also have been reflecting on the short-term future, as well as the immediate past. He looked none too happy, and with good reason.

Biarritz: Penalties Yachvili 5; Drop goal Traille. Bath: Penalties Malone 3.

Biarritz: N Brusque; J-B Gobelet, P Bidabé, D Traille, S Bobo; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili; P Balan, B August (capt), C Johnston (B Lecouls, 53), J Thion, D Couzinet (O Olibeau, 59), S Betsen (Johnston, 73-77), T Dusautoir, I Harinordoquy.

Bath: M Stephenson (E Fuimaono-Sapolu, 47); A Higgins (S Finau, 67), A Crockett, O Barkley, D Bory; C Malone, N Walshe (A Williams, 74); T Filise (D Barnes, 62), L Mears, D Bell, S Borthwick (capt), D Grewcock, A Beattie (P Short, 77), M Lipman, I Fea'unati (G Delve, 71).

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).