It is an accepted fact of French rugby life that Biarritz pick and choose their matches. "They are a pretty selective lot," said John Wells, the Leicester coach, "but when they turn up, they are a quality team." Sadly for Wells and his charges, the Basques turned up with a vengeance at Welford Road yesterday, delivering one of the great Heineken Cup performances in a first half of such jaw-dropping brilliance that the Midlanders were dead before the interval. If there was a resurrection of sorts afterwards, it was not enough to maintain the Tigers' advantage in this most bitterly contested of the tournament's six pools.
The Frenchmen now have control of the group, just as they controlled every phase - the scrums and line-outs, the mauls, the kicking game, the whole caboodle - for the opening 40 minutes of this wonderful contest. Any sort of victory over Wasps on the Atlantic coast this weekend will see them through to the knock-out stage for a third successive season. In fact, a draw will suffice. On this evidence, Lawrence Dallaglio and the London hordes will need to revisit the high peaks they scaled in winning the European title last year just to spare themselves a hiding.
Biarritz brought everything they owned to yesterday's party. Their full-back, Nicolas Brusque, was faultless; their scrum-half, Dimitri Yachvili, was as inventive as ever but, crucially, three times as disciplined. Serge Betsen, Imanol Harinordoquy and the supremely intelligent Thomas Lièvremont made up a back row to die for; Petru Balan and Denis Avril gave the mean-minded and physically imposing Leicester front row a hurry-up of serious proportions in the early scrums, undermining the hosts' confidence and disrupting their rhythm. If the Basques were not good value for their 18-point lead after 25 minutes, it was only because they deserved something better.
As a result of all this, Leicester rags were lost by the dozen. Harry Ellis, the young scrum-half, barely had a rag to lose, such was his mood from the outset, and there was an inevitability about his visit to the sin-bin in the second half. Alan Lewis, the referee, did not see Ellis drive a knee into a ruck as Leicester sought some purchase on proceedings late in the first half, and somehow failed to spot a more substantial assault on the long-suffering Thibault Lacroix a few minutes after the restart. Lewis did, however, see Ellis smash an elbow into the face of Yachvili, and the yellow card was duly flourished. It should have been a red card, which would have matched the mist descending on the recently capped England international.
Understandably, Yachvili was less than ecstatic. "It was a decision for the referee, of course," he said, "but yellow was the minimum, I think. It was an act of brutality, off the ball. Ellis is aggressive, for sure." Wells did not seek to defend his half-back. "He'll learn," the coach said. "I applaud him for his spirit, but he knows he allowed his frustration to get the better of him. As he gets older, these things will happen less frequently."
Sad to relate, the Leicester crowd let themselves down too. Biarritz were in no great hurry to do anything much once they had established a winning lead, and there were enough dying swans among their number to have filled a graveyard at Slimbridge. But the sound of a knowledgeable rugby audience venting their spleen at so gifted and courageous a side gave the occasion a bitter air. Maybe it would do something for the collective Welford Road soul if the Tigers lost more often.
Having rattled innumerable early points past Wasps in both of last month's all-English pool games, Leicester found themselves hoist with their own petard. Biarritz were on the scoreboard inside five minutes, Jerome Thion surging over the line with his pack behind him after a strong midfield attack by Lacroix had earned the visitors an attacking line-out.
Yachvili converted and added a penalty when Martin Johnson was penalised for dragging down a maul, Damien Traille dropped a leisurely goal to open up a 13-point lead and Jimmy Marlu maximised a powerful drive from Avril by gathering a flip-pass from Olivier Olibeau and slipping in at the left corner.
Leicester were lucky to be as badly off as they were, for Biarritz would certainly have scored from a fancy-pants routine at the front of the line-out had Yachvili located a colleague with the scoring pass, rather than the relieved Ellis. Traille and Brusque repeatedly put their side in threatening positions with the strength and accuracy of their punting, while Leicester struggled to string two passes together. Andy Goode, their outside-half, had a miserable time of it with his distribution. Come to think of it, his tactical kicking was none too hot either.
There was no great likelihood of Leicester being as inept after the break, and they worked up a ferocious head of steam in the third quarter. Ollie Smith might have scored had he not fumbled as Marlu hunted him down close to the line, Johnson was virtually over the whitewash when Lièvremont brought him to earth with a hit straight out of defensive heaven, Goode grounded the ball a couple of inches short as he dived for the line at the posts and Alex Tuilagi knocked on in Philippe Bidabé's tackle with five points at his mercy.
And still Biarritz manned the barricades. Leicester had to score sooner or later, but the Frenchmen made sure it was as late as possible. Some 74 minutes had passed when Tuilagi finally made it to the corner after a line-out drive expertly marshalled by Neil Back, and even though Ellis claimed a second try deep in stoppage time, the chances of the Tigers snatching a result were never anything other than remote. The better side won yesterday. When they have calmed down a little, the Leicester crowd might just recognise the justice of the result.
"I think the first half-hour of the game represented our most complete performance at this level," said the Biarritz coach, Patrice Lagisquet. Until yesterday, only Toulouse and Stade Français had succeeded in showcasing the very best of French rugby in the Heineken Cup. The Basques have now joined them. It may be their year.
Leicester: Tries Tuilagi, Ellis; Conversions Goode 2; Penalty Goode. Biarritz: Tries Thion, Marlu; Conversion Yachvili; Penalties Yachvili 2; Drop goal Traille.
Leicester: G Murphy; O Smith, L Lloyd, D Gibson, A Healey (A Tuilagi, 67); A Goode, H Ellis; D Morris (G Rowntree, 51), G Chuter (J Buckland, 75), J White, M Johnson (capt), L Deacon, L Moody, W Johnson (B Kay, 67), N Back.
Biarritz: N Brusque; P Bidabé, F Martin Arramburu, T Lacroix, J Marlu; D Traille, D Yachvili; P Balan (K Lealamanua, 51), B August (J-M Gonzalez, 60), D Avril (B Lecouls, 51), J Thion, O Olibeau (D Couzinet, 46), S Betsen, T Lièvremont (capt; C Milheres, 78), I Harinordoquy.
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).Reuse content