A late flourish featuring the dash of the American flyer Takudzwa Ngwenya could not quite unseat the aristocrats of French and European rugby, as Toulouse won their fourth Heineken Cup with a display of strength and intelligence in Paris. No other team has even won three.
With a nine-point lead and eight minutes remaining Toulouse were rocked by a try from Biarritz's Australian rugby league recruit, Karmichael Hunt. But poor Ngwenya, who had been well shackled up to that point, had to take defeat on the chin, literally, finishing with a bloody bandage round a cut under the mouth from an accidental clash of heads.
On a hot afternoon when the Biarritz Olympique chant of "BO, BO", might have been a cry for help, it was not simply a French championship final with a European branding. It was colourful and noisy behind each goal but the Clermont v Perpignan Top 14 final here next Saturday will be more wholly partisan. Among the sprinkling of British and Irish jerseys yesterday, worn by those who bought tickets in hope, earlier in the competition, Gloucester and Munster red mingled with the rouge of the Toulousains and Biarrots. The only anglos on the pitch were Iain Balshaw and Magnus Lund (the Norwegian turned England flanker) in the Biarritz side and the referee, Wayne Barnes, and his touch judges. How amusing in these days of financial angst in the eurozone to have an English lawyer blowing the whistle.
Not that Toulouse and Biarritz are short of cash; they have a combined estimated turnover of €45million, (£39.4m) and despite finishing fourth and seventh in the French league they are both in the top six of European rankings and will head a pool each next season, with Munster, Leicester, Leinster and Bath.
Money can't always buy tries, though, and all the first-half points came from kicks. Five out of the six rows of the packs were multi-national, but Toulouse's all-French front row drew two first-half penalties from the opposition with huge wheels. David Skrela hit a post with the first but the second went over from 40 metres after 31 minutes and at that stage Biarritz led 9-6. Their stick-legged goal-kicker, Dimitri Yachvili, has done for England a couple of times down the years and he landed 35-metre kicks after three, 16 and 28 minuteswith that familiarly nonchalant swipe of the left boot.
But Skrela levelled on 35 minutes and Florian Fritz dropped a goal which needed Barnes's compatriot in the stand, the TV match official, Graham Hughes, to confirm it had richocheted over the bar.
At the tackle area the Biarritz back-row, Lund, Wenceslas Lauret and Imanol Harinordoquy – the last looking like the Phantom of the Opera with white bandaging to protect his broken nose – helped force half a dozen knock-ons out of Toulouse and although a break from Fritz after 33 minutes threatened to open the Basques up and it needed a wide arc by Balshaw to cut Maxime Médard down, the attack finished with a midfield spill by Clément Poitrenaud.
Needless to say, Toulouse did some timber-felling of their own. Their captain, Thierry Dusautoir, is a one-man seek-and-destroy system and his faultless positioning snuffed several Biarritz raids out at source. They had one early go at releasing Ngwenya, but he ran into the giant Romain Millo-Chluski before the wheels had got turning.
With a 12-9 lead and a stronger bench to call on, Toulouse had it in their own hands, or at their feet, as it turned out. Poitrenaud had tossed away a Heineken Cup, dithering at Twickenham in 2004 to let in Wasps' Rob Howley, and his team-mate Médard mucked up a try after 46 minutes. Fritz, Shaun Sowerby, Patricio Albacete and Dusautoir drove into the Biarritz 22 and the man of the match, William Servat – a master at the "yards after contact", as American football calls it – rattled onwards. But when Skrela flashed a miss-pass right to left Médard, who had the flanker Jean Bouilhou free outside him, fumbled it.
It looked like an error badly compounded when Albacete went to the sin-bin very soon after. A Toulouse line-out was caught at the tail by Benoît August and the Biarritz hooker ran and punted to the opposition 22, where Albacete hauled him down before he could gather the ball. Yachvili's penalty made it 12-12 but Toulouse refocused and did what was necessary, a man down. After 51 and 55 minutes they worked drop-goal positions from which Skrela, twisting his body awkwardly in the first instance and acting gloriously smoothly from 40 metres in the second, booted six points. What a cruel reminder for Biarritz of the absence through injury of Damien Traille, the drop-goal destroyer of the Ospreys in the quarter-finals.
Vincent Clerc came close to a try for Toulouse and the Biarritz scramble conceded a penalty that was kicked from wide out by Skrela. He pushed a further attempt wide after a terrifyingly punishing straight push at the scrum, which by now had the replacements Daan Human and Cencus Johnston in it for Toulouse. But just when it seemed Basque hopes were gone, Arnaud Mignardi beat a double-tackle to free Ngwenya in the 73rd minute and his inside pass sent Hunt racing to the posts. Yachvili's replacement, Valentin Courrent, converted. A gallop by Balshaw in the next Biarritz attack threatened more of the same, but not quite. Toulouse held out and Biarritz, as in their previous final, against Munster in 2006, were beaten.
Biarritz Olympique I Balshaw; T Ngwenya, A Mignardi, K Hunt, J-B Gobelet (P Bidabé, 58); J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili (V Courrent, 70); E Coetzee (F Barcella, 49), B August (R Terrain, 67), C Johnstone, J Thion (capt), T Hall (M Carizza, 59), M Lund, I Harinordoquy, W Lauret (F Faure, 59).
Stade Toulousain C Poitrenaud (C Heymans, 67); V Clerc, F Fritz (Y David, 70), Y Jauzion, M Médard; D Skrela, B Kelleher; J-B Poux (D Human, 60), W Servat (A Vernet Basualdo, 72), B Lecouls (C Johnston, 63), R Millo-Chluski (Y Maestri, 58), P Albacete, J Bouilhou, S Sowerby (L Picamoles, 70), T Dusautoir (capt).
Referee W Barnes (England).Reuse content