Diamond abandons entertainment as Bracken orchestrates Biarritz beating

Saracens 22 Biarritz 10
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The Independent Online

The director of rugby was sick of watching his side invent brilliant ways of losing important matches and decided that for the foreseeable future, the ball would be visible only when Glen Jackson was kicking it miles through the air or sundry pug-ugly forwards were transferring it from one hairy armpit to another.

Yesterday, this strategy of extreme mean-mindedness - the kind of "nobody likes us and we don't care" approach that once transformed Wimbledon into the anti-christs of football - paid off so handsomely that an 11,000-plus crowd left Vicarage Road convinced of the existence of the beauty beneath the face of the gargoyle. Saracens scored only one try and it was not a particularly pretty one, given that Jackson was so comprehensively mashed by Kasiano Lealamanua and Imanol Harinordoquy as he slipped the decisive pass to Ben Johnston that it was impossible not to wince in sympathy, but as Diamond said afterwards: "I couldn't care less."

In the nicest possible way, Biarritz were beaten to a pulp. Their scrummage was every bit as potent as usual, but their line-out drills were straight out of a Feydeau farce and their power and dynamism in the collision area was of girl-guide intensity. They did not like Kevin Yates or Matt Cairns one little bit and were even less enthused by the presence of Iain Fullarton, Hugh Vyvyan and Ben Skirving, all of whom joined the one-time All Black captain Taine Randell in reducing the Basques to their component parts. Certainly, there was no hint of the perfection the visitors achieved in the first half of last year's awe-inspiring victory at Leicester.

The French were not helped by the premature departure of Damien Traille, their high-calibre centre, with a busted forearm, but his misfortune was far from crucial. Traille had already been cut in half by Kevin Sorrell, whose wonderful tackle early in the second quarter established the tone for the rest of the proceedings. Suffice to say that Biarritz were in such physical distress after the interval that their back row featured a prop, Benjamin Noirot, on the blind-side flank and a wing, Jean-Baptiste Gobelet, in the breakaway position.

They threatened the Saracens line on only two occasions. The first, on 13 minutes, yielded nothing because Kyran Bracken worked his much-abused body under Benoit August as the hooker plunged for a try from the epicentre of a driving maul. The second gave them seven points, Julien Peyrelongue benefiting from some delicious sleight of hand by Dimitri Yachvili to go over. But as this occurred in the 81st minute, neither Diamond nor the crowd could have given the proverbial tinker's.

Bracken, positively Sinatraesque as a comeback merchant, appears to be held together by Blue Tac these days. "Actually, I'm not at all sure it's anything that substantial," whispered the injured Richard Hill, his World Cup-winning England colleague, as the scrum-half hobbled from the field after 69 minutes of gallantry in the trenches. Yet during that time, he bossed his forwards, took on the Biarritz behemoths without a second's thought for his personal wellbeing and generally dictated.

Diamond's appreciation of this courageous contribution was heartfelt and hilarious in equal measure. "Last season, we compared Kyran's body with a tube of toothpaste from which we were squeezing whatever was left," he said. "Now, it's as if we've opened up the tube with a Stanley knife and are scraping out the remains." Bracken may or may not have attacked the plaque on the teeth of his opponents, but he certainly attacked everything else.

Being nobody's idea of a fool, Diamond knows full well that the return match at Parc des Sports Aguilera in January will be an entirely different kettle of poissons, not least because two outstanding forwards in the contrasting shapes of Petru Balan and Serge Betsen will be back between the shafts. But neither the formidable Romanian prop nor Europe's most effective flanker could have done much about the long-range drop goals from Jackson and Vyvyan (yes, honestly) that ensured a famous victory.

Vyvyan's majestic swing of the left boot from fully 40 metres was reminiscent of Zinzan Brooke himself - very definitely the first time the blue-collar Saracens skipper has been mentioned in the same breath as the great rugby aristocrat from Auckland.

Still, when you're hot, you're hot. If Saracens can maximise this early advantage by beating the awkward Italians of Treviso on the outskirts of Venice next weekend, their Heineken Cup campaign will be up and running with the same early momentum they enjoyed on their last appearance in the tournament five campaigns ago. On that occasion, they blew out their own candle with an indisciplined home performance against Cardiff. Now Diamond is in control, they may prove less profligate.

Saracens: Try Johnston; Conversion Jackson; Penalties Jackson 3; Drop goals Vyvyan, Jackson. Biarritz : Try Peyrelongue; Conversion Yachvili; Penalty Yachvili.

Saracens: T Castaignede; R Haughton (D Seymour, 77), B Johnston (B J Russell, 47), K Sorrell, P Bailey; G Jackson, K Bracken (A Dickens, 69); K Yates (N Lloyd, 12), M Cairns (S Byrne, 52), C Visagie (B Broster, 66), S Raiwalui (K Chesney, 59), I Fullarton, H Vyvyan (capt), T Randell, B Skirving.

Biarritz: N Brusque; J-B Gobelet (S Ormaechea, 78), F Martin Aramburu, D Traille (P Bidabe, 39), S Bobo; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili; K Lealamanua, B August, D Avril, J Thion, D Couzinet (O Olibeau, 49, B Noirot 58), T Dusuatoir (B Dambielle, 56), I Harinordoquy (D Chouchan, H-T), T Lievremont (capt).

Referee: N Owens (Wales).