Serge Blanco did not merely play for Biarritz, he mesmerised for them. As he watched the keepers of the flame open their Heineken Cup challenge in High Wycombe yesterday, the finest French full-back of them all must have mourned the fading of the stardust.
Serge Blanco did not merely play for Biarritz, he mesmerised for them. As he watched the keepers of the flame open their Heineken Cup challenge in High Wycombe yesterday, the finest French full-back of them all must have mourned the fading of the stardust. Had they shown the slightest ambition or summoned even a hint of attacking joie de vivre, the Basques might have beaten the reigning champions. Instead, they strapped themselves into a straitjacket of their own making and rolled around Buckinghamshire's green acres like 15 fools on the blasted heath.
Nicolas Brusque, Jimmy Marlu, Damien Traille, Dimitri Yachvili... these people operate at the cutting edge of the world game. They are blessed with vivid imaginations as well as faultless techniques, an instinctive appreciation of rugby's possibilities as well as a highly developed tactical awareness. Yet they closed their minds to those possibilities here, and crumbled to dust as a result. If they fail to beat Leicester on the Atlantic coast this weekend, they can blow a farewell kiss to their European campaign.
"Beat Leicester? To do that, we will have to play very differently," said Patrice Lagisquet, the Biarritz coach. His final two words were utterly superfluous. For some reason known only to themselves, Lagisquet's team did not play at all.
"As far as we are concerned, it's a question of 'thanks very much'," commented Lagisquet's opposite number, Warren Gatland. "I can't remember their wings getting the ball, or them going through any phases. They just kicked. Why? Don't ask me. I felt that in the end we won comfortably, even if it was an ugly win, but the result was more important than anything else."
Of course, the kicking game is a major component of modern-day rugby, and rugby doesn't get any more modern than in this most boundary-stretching of tournaments. In Brusque, Traille, Yachvili and Philippe Bidabe, the visitors fielded a quartet of backs capable of hoofing the ball from backside to breakfast-time.
Yet Biarritz could not even get that bit right. Having crossed the Channel with the clear intention of booting the leather off the ball, they over-booted it so often that Wasps were repeatedly presented with attacking platforms deep in opposition territory.
That the holders scored only one try as a result of this lavish generosity said as much about them as about Biarritz. Wasps were almost terminally butterfingered in the first half, none more so than Josh Lewsey on the wing, and seemed there for the taking. Even when the Frenchmen gave up rugby entirely after the interval, the home side needed the best part of an hour to sneak ahead. But once Alex King, the one truly persuasive figure on display, had hit the spot with a second drop goal on 54 minutes, the contest was in dead-and-buried territory.
King is some player these days - tough and confident and ruthless, all the things Sir Clive Woodward thought he wasn't during the build-up to last year's World Cup. "I've seen a total transformation in character over three years," said Shaun Edwards, the specialist defensive coach whose contribution to Wasps' golden run has been nothing short of immense. "Alex used to go around with his head down; now, he walks about the place like Napoleon. He's grumpy, he screams and shouts, he makes people scared of him. He's in a leadership role, and that is exactly what you need from a leader. Rob Howley" - Wasps' injured Lions scrum-half - "says that Alex as we know him now is the best leader of any outside-half he has partnered."
Leadership is primarily about the establishment of standards and the setting of examples, and King pressed all the right buttons yesterday. If his passing was a characteristic mix of the very good and the sublime, and his tactical kicking the usual model of common sense, his physical approach to life in the heavy traffic was revelatory in the extreme.
He snuffed out one of only two serious attacks by Biarritz with a top-shelf tackle on Julien Peyrelongue - the visitors had to settle for a drop goal by Traille, rather than a full seven-pointer - and then dumped the Argentinian centre Federico Martin Arramburu flat on his derriere to set up the one try of the contest.
Not only did King bury his rival, he stripped the ball from his arms to put his side in turnover heaven. Both Craig Dowd, back between the shafts after a long injury lay-off, and Ayoola Erinle ploughed upfield, Mark van Gisbergen stretched the Biarritz defence to snapping point with a cultured step off the left wing, and when the Wasps forwards produced quick ball from a ruck close to the goal-line, Joe Worsley dipped his substantial shoulder and finished the job.
Biarritz were not helped by the fact that Serge Betsen, their totemic loose forward, was cooling his fevered brow in the sin-bin, having been dispatched there by the Irish referee, Allan Lewis, who wrongly decided that the flanker had illegally spirited away some prime Wasps possession on the floor. It was not the only decision that left the visitors feeling aggrieved. For all their conservatism, the Frenchmen would have scored an opening try through Marlu had Lewis not pulled them back for obstruction.
But it was difficult to sympathise with a wonderfully gifted side who consciously chose not to indulge their talents, or even recognise their existence. Biarritz left England with precisely what they deserved. A big fat zero.
Wasps: Try Worsley; Conversion Van Gisbergen; Penalties Van Gisbergen 4; Drop goals King 2. Biarritz: Penalties Yachvili 3; Drop goal Traille.
Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; J Lewsey, P Richards (F Waters, 81), A Erinle, T Voyce; A King (J Brooks, 81), M Dawson; T Payne, P Greening, W Green (C Dowd, 46), J Hart, R Birkett, J Worsley, J O'Connor, L Dallaglio (capt).
Biarritz: N Brusque; P Bidabe, F Martin Arramburu, D Traille, J Marlu; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili; P Balan, B August, D Avril (B Lecouls, 67), J Thion (capt), O Booyse, S Betsen, S Malonga (C Milheres, 57), I Harinordoquy.
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).Reuse content