A loud clatter of jawbones striking terra firma shook the eve-of-game peace in Cardiff yesterday when Thomas Lièvremont, the captain of Biarritz, suggested his side might be too scared to express themselves in this afternoon's Heineken Cup final with Munster at the Millennium Stadium. The sound became deafening when Declan Kidney, the coach of the Irish province, stretched credulity still further by stating, apparently in all seriousness: "It is the job of French clubs to win titles. It is our job to produce players for our national team."
There is kidology, there is psychological warfare and there is this nonsense. Biarritz are the French champions, and no team wins titles against the likes of Toulouse and Stade Français without a degree of self-belief. The Basques are not noted for throwing caution to the wind, it is true; indeed, their knock-out victories over Sale and Bath in this tournament were so prudent they might have been planned by Scrooge himself. But this is born of strategy, not fear. Biarritz play it the way they see fit, and their results in recent seasons suggest they are not far wrong in their thinking.
Still, Lièvremont was determined to paint his multi-talented side in muted colours. "Maybe we have a secret for this game," he said. "People who criticise us should come to Biarritz and listen to what our coaches ask us to do. But in this tournament, maybe we do not play enough rugby. Perhaps we are afraid to play. We will see in this game, I think."
Not for the first time, Kidney was also up for the mind games. His mischievous notion that Munster had reached their third final in six years all the while concentrating their efforts on bolstering Ireland's fortunes would have flabbergasted the 60,000 ticket holders from Limerick and Cork expected to sardine their way into the stadium. For them, Munster rugby has never been anything other than an end in itself.
Of course, all this will be so much hot air once the sides take the field. Few anticipate anything other than the tightest of contests, with Biarritz pitting their secure set-pieces and unusually potent kicking game against the ferocity of Munster's challenge in the loose. If the back lines have any sort of influence, it will tilt the balance towards the Basques. If the argument is won in and around the tackle area, the Jerry Flannerys, Donncha O'Callaghans and Denis Leamys will eke out the most famous Munster victory since Graham Mourie's All Blacks were subdued almost 30 years ago.
Flannery, Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara would certainly find a place in the Basque team, and it is just about possible to make out a case for O'Callaghan and Leamy too. But by and large, the French side have a clear edge, not least at scrum-half, where Dimitri Yachvili, the architect of the semi-final victory over Bath in San Sebastian, has a lean and hungry look about him.
Assuming Biarritz absorb pressure, both physical and territorial, Yachvili could win them the trophy. He kicks brilliantly, out of hand and at goal; he drives his forwards like Matt Dawson on heat; he oozes warrior spirit from every pore. Most importantly of all, he is different. Munster are quite a proposition when they establish themselves on the front foot, but they are easy to second-guess. No one in the sport second-guesses Yachvili these days.
Yet when all is said and done, only this much is certain: in terms of atmosphere, the red-shirted hordes from across the Irish Sea will take the Millennium Stadium out of Cardiff and relocate it on the site of Thomond Park, where Munster are close to unbeatable in European competition. If Biarritz do contrive to keep the trophy in France, they will have delivered the bravest of performances, not the most fearful.
Biarritz: N Brusque; J-B Gobelet, P Bidabé, D Traille, S Bobo; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili; P Balan, B August, C Johnson, J Thion, D Couzinet, S Betsen, I Harinordoquy, T Lièvremont (capt).
Munster: S Payne; A Horgan, J Kelly, T Halstead, I Dowling; R O'Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, D Leamy, D Wallace, A Foley (capt).
Referee: C White (England).