Dominici pounces to crush Biarritz

Stade Français 20 - Biarritz 17
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The Independent Online

Stade Français snatched a place in the Heineken Cup final with a stunning finish which broke the hearts of the whole of Basque country yesterday.

Stade Français snatched a place in the Heineken Cup final with a stunning finish which broke the hearts of the whole of Basque country yesterday.

The Paris-based club seemed out of the match when they trailed 17-6 with 15 minutes of normal time remaining. But two converted tries in the final moments snatched the game from nowhere and Biarritz were left to contemplate the agony of losing a Heineken semi-final for the second year in succession.

The finish was full of controversy, for even after the Stade fly-half Jerome Fillol had squeezed over beside the posts for a 73rd-minute try to cut the Biarritz lead to 17-13, the home team needed another 18 minutes to snatch the match.

The English referee Tony Spreadbury played an extraordinary 11 minutes of injury time. Where he got it from no one knows, but it was enough to throw Stade a lifeline.

They took full advantage, mounting a series of desperate late raids before the France wing Christophe Dominici picked up the ball in the scrum-half position from a ruck and simply ran through the broken defence for the crucial score. Fillol converted as the clock hit the 10th minute of injury time.

It was the unlikeliest comeback you could ever imagine. But in a strange way Stade deserved it, because they were the only side prepared to try some adventure, to try to put some width on their game in a largely turgid semi-final where the prize had clearly intimidated both teams.

Biarritz will be apoplectic, partly at the referee but also, if they are brutally honest, at themselves. The withdrawal of their captain Thomas Lièvremont and the heavyweight prop Denis Avril after 68 minutes proved disastrous. It was clearly premature but Biarritz, like most others in the ground, thought the game was over. It probably would have been but for the fact that Biarritz's centre, Guillaume Bousses, nearly took off the head of the Stade wing Julien Arias, two minutes after his team had taken a 17-6 lead. A 30-metre break by the centre Damien Traille for a fine try had given Biarritz that advantage, and though the scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili could not convert, his side looked home and dry.

Bousses' yellow card changed that and Stade at last began to find some gaps in the defence. But the fact that they needed so much injury time to get the winning score will be argued endlessly throughout France.

The dramatic finish was in startling contrast to a dreary first half in which neither team were prepared to be expressive. Yachvili banged over penalty goals from 47, 51 and 46 metres before Fillol replied from 44. The siege-gun goal-kicking continued in the second half, the pair again exchanging goals to establish a 12-6 lead for Biarritz. But they were wounded by another yellow card, the lock Olivier Olibeau getting 10 minutes in the bin for a tackle on Brian Liebenberg when the centre didn't have the ball.

Given that the two teams boasted 10 French internationals in their back lines alone, it was a pretty dire demonstration, confirmation that even in such wonderful conditions of warm sunshine and a dry ground, the pressures of a Heineken Cup semi-final can make even the best players freeze with fear.

Briarritz have been this way before, their own excessive caution costing them not only a semi-final against Toulouse last year, but also a pool game against Wasps in London last autumn. Until they can lose their reserve and banish the fear of failure, they cannot expect to reach the ultimate prize.

Stade Français: O Sarramea; J Arias, S Glas, B Liebenberg, C Dominici; J Fillol, A Pichot; S Marconnet, M Blin, R Roncero (P Lemoine, 61), D Auradou (capt), O Brouzet (M James, 57), P Rabadan (M Bergamasco, 61), R Martin, S Sowerby.

Biarritz: N Brusque; P Bidabé (F Martin Arramburu, 60), G Bousses, D Traille, J Marlu; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili; P Balan (K Lealamanua, 40), B August, D Avril (B Lecouls, 68), J Thion, O Olibeau (D Couzinet, 75), S Betsen, I Harinordoquy (T Dusautoir, 50-58; JM Gonzalez, 80), T Lièvremont (capt; Dusautoir, 68).

Referee: A Spreadbury (England).

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