Bath gave it their best shot, as indeed did Danny Grewcock with the punch of a true heavyweight, but they were forced to take a standing count as Biarritz blasted their way into the final of the Heineken Cup. Dimitri Yachvili, a smooth operator at scrum-half, gave a man of the match performance, defying the rain in Spain to land five penalties out of five.
For a while Chris Malone threatened to match him in the goalkicking stakes but this was a huge ask for Bath and they weren't quite up to it. In front of 30,000 of their fanatical supporters, the most colourful and the noisiest in professional rugby, the Basque club, having reached their third successive semi-final in Europe's blue riband, this time made no mistake in reaching their first final. At the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on 20 May they will meet the winners of today's semi-final in Dublin between Munster and Leinster. The Welsh capital had better brace itself for a Franco-Irish invasion.
Bath, who had overcome similar odds in beating Leicester at the Walkers Stadium in the quarter-finals, could not replicate that heroic effort against a team that has just about everything. Biarritz can play an attacking game with width or, if they choose, go for the full frontal assault with a pack that is as formidable as anything in the competition.
They explored both routes yesterday and it is to Bath's credit that they denied Biarritz a try, as they had Leicester. What, perhaps, is not to their credit is that the coach, Brian Ashton, went for the safety-first option of playing Malone, a competent footballer but no more than that, at stand-off. They said they would not play conservatively but for the most part they did and it was never going to work.
The sheer weight and ferocity of the Biarritz tackling inevitably takes its toll. Bath, who won the Heineken Cup in 1998, beating Brive in Bordeaux, needed to win here to qualify for next season. It was also probably Ashton's last match in charge if, as expected, he rejoins England.
The first half was as cagey as could be. The players had warmed up beforehand under blue skies but it soon turned grey and heavy rain, which had left the ground under an inch of water on the eve of the match, returned. Even so, the surface itself, which is usually graced by Real Sociedad, looked better than that used for the World Snooker Championship.
It certainly suited the goalkickers. Within four minutes Bath conceded two penalties, one for Alex Crockett being too aggressive in his challenge on Sireli Bobo, the second from a lineout offence which presented Yachvili with an opportunity to open the scoring. He did not waste it, striking from 40 yards.
After his half-back partner Julien Peyrelongue wasted a great chance from in front of the Bath posts with an abortive drop goal, Yachvili was on target again, from shorter range but a more acute angle. At 6-0 the magnificent Estadio Anoeta (about as far removed from the Rec as could be imagined) was awash with Biarritz red and white at the "neutral" venue in northern Spain. Neutral, my derrière.
Never mind spot the ball, spot the Bath supporter. The odd speck of blue could just about be discerned when Bath got themselves on the scoreboard, Malone kicking an excellent penalty. So it was the left boot of Yachvili versus the right of Malone. When Grewcock was penalised for obstruction, rather harshly, Yachvili made it three out of three after 22 minutes.
However, from the re-start Benoît August knocked on and from the scrum Biarritz conceded a penalty, which Malone converted with another almost inch-perfect kick, and again Bath were only three points adrift. A fumble by Damien Traille presented the stand-off with the chance to level the scores but the penalty was from halfway and this time Malone had neither the length nor the accuracy.
August had taken over the captaincy from Thomas Lièvremont, but Biarritz had not left all their egos in one Basque. However, August blotted his copybook late in the first half with an alleged gouging of Grewcock, who would later exact his revenge. An eye for a tooth.
Biarritz's three-point advantage at half-time was stretched early in the second half when Traille, chasing a kick ahead, was taken out and Yachvili stepped up yet again. His fourth success re-established a six-point lead.
A difficult situation got worse for Bath when Traille had all the time in the world to drop a straightforward goal in the 47th minute and it left the West Country club with a mountain to climb.
They got to base camp when Malone made it 15-9 and they might even have scaled the peaks had Salesi Finau not lost possession in the Biarritz 22. Earlier Grewcock and Petru Balan were sent to the sin-bin for a fight that spread through the two packs. "There was a scuffle between Andy Beattie and two French players," said Grewcock. "I stepped in to calm the situation."
This was one battle that Bath won as Balan was left stroking his jaw, but it was Yachvili who set the seal on a red and white explosion with his fifth penalty in the dying minutes.
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, 54), J Thion, D Couzinet (O Olibeau, 59), S Betsen, I Harinordoquy, T Dusautoir.
Bath: M Stephenson (E Fuimaono-Sapolu, 48); A Higgins (S Finau, 65), A Crockett, O Barkley, D Bory; C Malone, N Walshe (A Williams, 71); T Filise (D Barnes, 61), L Mears, D Bell, S Borthwick(capt), D Grewcock, A Beattie (P Short, 76), I Fea'unati (G Delve, 70), M Lipman.
Referee: A Rolland(Ireland).Reuse content