Servat dishes up sweet win as Harinordoquy is struck dumb by the pain game
Biarritz 19 Toulouse 21
Monday 24 May 2010
At the end, it seemed the emotional spectrum of rugby union spanned about a dozen yards. On one side of the halfway line, the Toulouse coach Guy Noves sat hunched on the replacement's bench, motionless apart from an occasional, barely detectable shake of the head. A few paces to his right, the Biarritz forward Imanol Harinordoquy offered even fewer clues that he might still be alive. There the similarity ended. Noves, like Sir Alf Ramsey in 1966, was struck lame by the twin surges of relief and satisfaction. Harinordoquy was immobile for other reasons: for one thing, he was physically broken; for another, there was nowhere left for him to go.
For all we know, the Basque No 8 is still there at Stade de France, staring at the floor and trying to work out whether the agonies involved in playing a match of this intensity with a busted nose and a fractured rib are greater than those of failure. The answer, when he finally arrives at it, will be that they are not. Rugby is the cruellest of team sports because everyone ends up hurting. The pain in victory may have a sugar-coating of sweetness to it, but it is pain nonetheless. The pain in defeat, especially defeat on this scale, has nothing to recommend it.
Harinordouy, one of the half-dozen finest players in the world, wanted to win this match more than anyone. As a proud and committed Basque, he craved victory for the Basque "nation" over the French; as the public face of the Biarritz side – the roar of approval at the mention of his name before kick-off extinguished the last embers of debate on the subject – he felt he was representing an entire community rather than a mere rugby club. Besides, he had put himself through the fires of hell in getting his side to this final in the first place. To lose now would be too much for flesh and blood to stand.
But lose he did, and in a way that might have been specifically designed to make the feeling as bad as possible. Biarritz lost because they were massively outscrummaged by the Toulouse front row of Jean-Baptiste Poux, Benoît Lecouls and the wonderful William Servat, aided and abetted late in the game by Daan Human and Census Johnston. Their supremacy at the set-piece neutralised the athletic, all-court threat posed by Harinordoquy, leaving him with the sick feeling of helplessness deep in the pit of his stomach – just about the only part of him still functioning fully at the end of a brutal season.
Poux will travel to South Africa with France for this summer's Tests. Lecouls will not, even though the Tricolores are worryingly exposed in the tight-head position. By all accounts, the medics attached to the national team are reluctant to sanction a resumption of his international career because he has a history of neck problems, although Lecouls himself is up for it. And Servat? Crikey. If there is a better hooker operating right now, he is playing behind closed doors, with the light off.
"Rugby at this level is about experience, and William is the man we look to for experience," said Johnston, the Samoan prop who was a familiar figure in the English club game before heading to Toulouse this time last year. "You could see it in this final. The moment he went off, everything turned around and they scored their try. He is a world-class player and he makes all our lives easier. When he suddenly isn't there, things go wrong."
Servat had scrummaged magnificently – the Irishmen of Munster, taken to the cleaners by the Biarritz tight forwards at the semi-final stage, must have been profoundly shocked by the sight of the Basques being shunted from one end of Paris to the other – and had also made his usual telling contribution with ball in hand, driving off the edges and setting up prime attacking rucks deep behind the advantage line. When he was replaced by Alberto Vernet Basualdo four minutes from the end of normal time, Toulouse were 21-12 up and cruising to an unprecedented fourth European title.
Then it happened. With Basualdo as the new fulcrum, the Toulouse front row was penalised for an early engagement – just about the only time they had not been in complete control of themselves, and of their opponents too. Biarritz tapped and went, Arnaud Mignardi and Takudzwa Ngwenya making ground down the left to create an out-of-the-blue try for Karmichael Hunt. Valentin Courrent's conversion closed the gap to two points and, for the remainder of the contest, Iain Balshaw's fluent running from full-back threatened to upset the applecart completely.
But Toulouse, whose own attacking brilliance had foundered on the rock of Biarritz's back-row defence – Magnus Lund, the former Sale flanker, was exceptional in this regard as was Harinordoquy - had enough in the bank, in terms of know-how at close quarters as well as in terms of points, to finish the game without further damage. They would have liked to win with a little more élan, but the kicking of David Skrela from a variety of wicked angles and punishing distances was a thing of beauty in and of itself. Florian Fritz wasn't bad either, and as the centre is not judged good enough to make the French squad 15 months shy of the World Cup, it is entirely legitimate for everyone else to start panicking.
Ultimately, though, this was a victory won by the uglies up there at the sharp end, and it may well be that the 2011 global tournament in New Zealand will be decided the same way, by the same kinds of people.
Like every other sport, rugby has its cycles. At present, all the big matches are turning on the scrum: the Six Nations meeting between France and England in Paris; the Premiership semi-final between Leicester and Bath at Welford Road; both Heineken Cup semi-finals; and now, the most important club game of them all.
It is the age of the front-row forward, which is why a decent tight-head prop is more marketable than anyone. Except, perhaps, Harinordoquy, a lion even in defeat.
Scorers: Biarritz: Try Hunt; Conversion Courrent; Penalties Yachvili 4.Toulouse: Penalties Skrela 3, Fritz; Drop goals Skrela 2, Fritz.
Biarritz: I Balshaw; T Ngwenya, K Hunt, A Mignardi, J-B Gobelet (P Bidabe 60); J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili (V Courrent 74); E Coetzee (F Barcella 50), B August (R Terrain 71), C Johnstone, J Thion (capt), T Hall ( M Carizza 61), M Lund, W Lauret (F Faure 61), I Harinordoquy.
Toulouse: C Poitrenaud (C Heymans 71); V Clerc, F Fritz (Y David 75), Y Jauzion, M Medard; D Skrela, B Kelleher; J-B Poux (D Human 63), W Servat (A Vernet Basualdo 76), B Lecouls (C Johnston 66), R Millo-Chluski (Y Maestri 59), P Albacete, J Bouilhou, T Dusautoir (capt), S Sowerby (L Picamoles 75).
Referee: W Barnes (England).
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