Brian Ashton: Biarritz betrayed the imaginative spirit of Blanco

Tackling The Issues
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The Independent Online

Poor old Serge Blanco. What could the great man of Biarritz have been thinking as he watched the Basque side's Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat by Toulouse on Sunday evening?

Here was a remarkable individual who performed, almost on a weekly basis, astonishing feats for club and country: a rugby genius blessed with imagination, invention, pace, skill and courage – a master of the counter-attack who would back himself to make something happen when everyone else on the field was paralysed with fear. Quite simply, Blanco was one of the finest full-backs ever to play the game. Has any of his stardust been sprinkled on the Biarritz of today? Apparently not.

Quite what he made of his team's approach down there in San Sebastian, heaven only knows. It amounted to nothing more than a collision-based driving game, based around an unending series of pick-and-go rumbles around the side by forwards who, quite literally, kept the ball close to their chests. Behind these behemoths, Dimitri Yachvili steered the close-quarter strategy from scrum-half, hoofing the ball in the air or down the short side in primitive kick-and-chase fashion.

As for his mate at No 10, Julien Peyrelongue... well, he was even less ambitious. There was a moment towards the end of a tense, fiercely fought encounter, when, from an attacking scrum in the Toulouse 22, he simply smashed into the tackle of his opposite number, David Skrela, with all the wit and elegance of a front-row forward who, unable to see the point of passing, had never bothered to learn.

Meanwhile, twiddling their thumbs in the furthest-flung areas of the field, were three natural finishers: one from England (Iain Balshaw), one from Fiji (Ilikena Bolakoro), and one from the United States (Taku Ngwenya). Denied even a fleeting glimpse of the ball in space, they were reduced to dealing with the Toulouse kicking game – putting it politely, the results were varied – and being squeezed into blind alleys from which there was no escape. How they must have enjoyed their afternoon!

Yes, Biarritz found a way of taking the reigning champions into extra time. If it wasn't a very interesting way, it did the job. But they were found out in the end when they conceded a charge-down try, and in my view, this was entirely just. Unless I'm mistaken, their tactics were geared towards the avoidance of defeat, in the hope that Toulouse would commit sufficient errors under pressure to make a narrow victory possible – a negative mindset that has cost them dear on big occasions in the past.

As contrasts go, the one between this Biarritz performance and the glorious deeds of Blanco was particularly sad, made all the more miserable by the fact that the maestro of old was sitting there in the stand, watching the dream of European success disappear once again. Will this defeat be a catalyst for change? I'd like to think so, but I'm not holding my breath. The kind of narrow-mindedness we saw at the weekend seems to be in the Basques' DNA, presumably to Blanco's bemusement. If I was slightly bemused myself after the quarter-final weekend, it was because I read a comment attributed to a Leicester player stating that his team would learn from, and be stronger for, the defeat by Leinster in Dublin. I'm pretty sure I heard something similar from another of the Tigers' big names in the aftermath of another painful defeat in the Irish capital – this one suffered by England as the Six Nations Championship reached its denouement.

Such words do not sit easily with Leicester's image as a tough, resourceful, self-sufficient club who have, over the years, trusted in their own capacity to shape a game to their liking and, more often than not, come out on the right side of the scoreline. If memory serves, they have never been in the business of being taught rugby lessons and then going away to absorb them. Quite the opposite. More often than not, they have done the teaching and left their opponents to do the pondering.

Having watched the game at the new Lansdowne Road, the phrase "adaptability in the heat of battle" sprang readily to mind. Leinster's game appeared to have more in the way of cerebral input, and while much was made afterwards of the set-piece and tackle-area contests – massive contributory factors, admittedly – I felt Leinster's dynamism in using their footwork, making the extra pass and running at space gave them an important advantage. At this level of the club game, physicality is crucial. But when the teams cancel each other out in this respect, a little intelligence tends to swing the argument.

It seems to me that with the semi-final pairings as they are, we are guaranteed some light and shade in the final. The clash of bodies in the Northampton-Perpignan tie in Milton Keynes will be heard loud and clear back at Franklin's Gardens, the true home of the Saints. The Leinster-Toulouse game will also make us wince as the players set about their work, but I suspect there will be something different, something more intriguing and mind-stretching about it: a little Irish craic on the one hand, a little French je ne sais quoi on the other.

League players make counterparts look slow on the uptake

Just the other day, I was enjoying a quiet pint in my local (runner-up in the Real Ale Pub of the Year rankings, no less!) when I found myself being confronted and challenged over my comments in last week's column about the superiority of running and handling skills in rugby league. After casting an eye over the latest events in the rival codes – Super 15 and Heineken Cup in union; Super League in the 13-a-side game – I was delighted to be vindicated. As a result, I stand firmly by what I said.

Let me give you one technical example: league players take the ball early as often as possible, and this helps them create time. They also hit the ball on running lines that enable them to open up space, attack defenders' weak shoulders or fix opponents with a finely calculated angle. For many union players, a straightening of the running line comes as an afterthought rather than a prerequisite. I know which is the more effective way of doing things, and it isn't the latter.