Biarritz expose Saracens' faultlines

Biarritz 43 Saracens 13
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The Independent Online

They travelled more in hope than expectation and long before the end the cause of Saracens was quite hopeless. They went into this Pool Four decider with an outside chance of making the quarter-finals for the first time but bowed out of the tournament, blitzed six tries to one by the French champions Biarritz.

When Philippe Sella, and a few other international stars, were strutting their stuff for Sarries the club made a real impact in England. Yesterday Sella, not to mention Thomas Castaignède, would have been downcast at the manner of their exit.

Saracens have not been short of investment but they have been deprived in most other departments. It is the true thoroughbreds who are through to the last eight and Sarries do not come into that category.

Steve Diamond, their coach, arrived in London from Sale. Sale are top of the Guinness Premiership and are through to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, a feat Saracens are unlikely to achieve in their current guise. Diamond is now under huge pressure to turn the club's fortunes around and it doesn't help if there is a difference of opinion among the coaching staff - i.e. between the head coach and his assistant Mike Ford, who was one of the few people to emerge from the Lions tour of New Zealand with his reputation enhanced. Diamond is not Ford's best friend.

At least Saracens, and their long-suffering supporters, got to play in the chic resort of Biarritz, joining the high rollers of the Atlantic, not to mention French society. Saracens' hopes of making progress in Europe were raised after they had beaten Biarritz 22-10 at Vicarage Road, thanks mainly to a magnificent forward effort. Pity the poor citizens of Biarritz who had to wander around Watford High Street. The rematch, of course, was an entirely different kettle of poisson and the Basques, who have not lost a Heineken Cup match at the Aguilera stadium since 2001 - Bath did the honours - earned a home quarter-final in March on a wave of attacking rugby.

Saracens, who were by no means at full strength, took the lead after seven minutes when Glen Jackson kicked a good penalty, a just reward for their optimistic start. When Biarritz finally managed to get their hands on the ball, though, they looked ominously dangerous.

In the 14th minute they laid down a marker as Saracens were forced into tackling overload. The defence was breached when Dimitri Yachvili and Julian Peyrelongue, with a contribution from Jean-Baptiste Gobelet, created space in midfield for Federico Martin Aramburu to go over near the posts.

Five minutes later came try No 2 as Sarries were torn this way and that before Gobelet, a wing who is built almost on the scale of the Pyrenees, used his size and strength to crash over in the style of a back-row forward.

At 12-3 the Basques were basking but they were reminded of Saracens' resolution when the visitors scored a try that could have been borrowed from the Biarritz scrapbook. Jackson found a gap in midfield and Moses Rauluni and Ben Russell kept up the good work for the latter to slip a try-scoring pass to Kevin Yates, the prop showing admirable timing to go over at the posts from close range.

However, no sooner were Saracens right back in it than they suffered a double blow. The Frenchman Castaignède had not broken sweat but he did manage to aggravate a hamstring injury and made a dejected retreat. Biarritz's third try was not as glamorous as their earlier efforts, Yachvili working the blindside to put the hooker Benôit August over from all of three yards.

Although Jackson knocked over another penalty, Saracens ran into further trouble on the stroke of half-time when Simon Raiwalui hit Jerôme Thion with a high and late tackle. The Fijian got a yellow card, Thion retired hurt and Yachvili missed the resultant penalty.

On paper, trailing 19-13, Saracens were very much in it; on grass it was a different story. Within a minute of the restart, against 14 men, Nicolas Brusque exploited a huge overlap on the right and his try brought Biarritz an important bonus point. The Basques were now too brisk by half and when Yates high-tackled Yachvili, the scrum-half picked himself up to land the penalty.

Another three-quarter assault, during which Dan Scarbrough took out Brusque with an illegal challenge which brought him a yellow card, saw Philippe Bidabé selling a dummy to dash over from 35 yards. Sarries could barely get out of their half and they were disrupted when Matt Cairns, a replacement hooker, replaced the wing Ben Johnston.

Biarritz were not finished. Peyrelongue cut inside to score. Cue extravagant celebrations, but not up the North Circular.

Biarritz: N Brusque; J-B Gobelet, P Bidabé, F Martin Aramburu (D Lison, 44), S Bobo (B Dambielle, 75); J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili (J Dupuy, 68); D Balan (K Lealamanu'a, 57), B August (N Benjamin, 63), B Lecouls, J Thion (O Olibeau, 40), D Couzinet, T Dusautoir, T Lièvremont (capt; S Betsen, 63), I Harinordoquy.

Saracens: M Bartholomeusz; B Johnston (M Cairns, 66), T Castaignède (K Sorrell, 23), D Harris (D Scarbrough, 52), T Vaikona; G Jackson, M Rauluni (A Dickens, 60); K Yates (A Liffchak, 69), S Byrne (A Kyriacou, 69), B Broster (T Mercey, 73), S Raiwalui, H Vyvyan(capt), B Russell, K Chesney, D Seymour.

Referee: A Lewis(Ireland)

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