Serge Blanco, president of the Ligue Nationale de Rugby and the closest thing to a Robespierre figure in the planned French boycott of the 2007-08 Heineken Cup, spent a good deal of time in the Biarritz dressing room before yesterday's final pool game. He had every right to be in there - he was, after all, the very greatest of their players - but what was he saying to them?
For a while, it seemed he had spoken along the following lines: "As you won't be turning out in next season's tournament, you might as well forget about this season's while you're at it."
The Basques did so little for so long in the opening half, it was as if they could not have cared less. Imanol Harinordoquy summoned up sufficient enthusiasm to start a running battle with the Northampton wing Sean Lamont in the first five seconds, while the visiting tight forwards set about the hard-scrummaging Pat Barnard with more than a touch of cynicism. But apart from a bullet of a drop goal from Dimitri Yachvili - crikey, what a talent - they achieved next to nothing with all 15 men on the field, and even less with Sereli Bobo and David Couzinet in the cooler.
Paul Grayson, the Northampton coach, was far from enamoured with the treatment dished out to Barnard, who failed to appear after the interval for the very good reason that he was undergoing hospital tests for a head injury.
"Pat is a destructive scrummager and this is the third time this season he's been taken out of a game, accidentally or otherwise," Grayson remarked, caustically.
He had a point. In Barnard's absence, Biarritz took control of the set pieces, increased the tempo of the contest, scored two fine tries and disappeared over the horizon with a home quarter-final in the bag. Their opponents? Northampton. "We may just have convinced them to take us lightly," said Grayson, looking on the bright side.
Whatever chance the Midlanders had of registering a bonus-point victory and turning the pool on its head - and it was never anything other than remote - hinged on their performance in the opening 20 minutes. They had to cross the Biarritz line in that period, certainly once and preferably twice. This they failed to manage.
"We lacked patience early on - we're in this 'let's get it over and done with' mindset," Grayson said. "But it was always going to be difficult. Biarritz are a hell of a side. If they don't want you to score, it's bloody difficult to do so."
Certainly, the Basque defence was as tight as a drum. Andrea Masi, the Italian centre, was a stand-out figure with his wrap-up tackles and physicality; Jérome Thion and Thomas Lièvremont refused to give so much as an inch in the heavy traffic. And then there was Serge Betsen, the flanker who gave Jonny Wilkinson such a God-awful time during a Six Nations match in Paris a few years back. Betsen may not be the player he was, but he is still too good for the likes of Northampton. The longer yesterday's game went on, the less sense the home back-rowers made of him.
Had Biarritz really pushed the boat out, they would have scored four tries and become the first side to finish a Heineken Cup pool stage with a maximum 30-point return. In the event, they settled for Masi's strong finish to the right of the sticks on 51 minutes and an even better score 13 minutes later. This came straight off a line-out, Masi transfixing the Northampton defence before freeing Bobo with the most cultured of passes out of the tackle.
Northampton managed a reply of sorts two minutes from time, the heavyweight prop Soane Tonga'uiha claiming his first try for the club from six inches or so. But things were done and dusted by then, just as the argument surrounding next season's tournament ap-pears to be. After the game, Blanco materialised pitch-side to confirm that the French decision was final - or at least, as final as could be at this stage of the proceedings.
"I love this tournament; everything is a shame," said the stellar full-back of yesteryear. "It is a shame to withdraw, but it is also a shame not to be listened to, not to be understood, not to be taken seriously."
There is talking to be done, of course, but as things stand, the man means business.
Northampton: Try Tonga'uiha; Penalty Spencer. Biarritz: Tries Masi, Bobo; Conversions Yachvili 2; Drop goal Yachvili.
Northampton: R Kydd (R Laird, 76); S Lamont, B Cohen, D Quinlan, P Diggin; C Spencer, M Robinson; C Budgen (M Easter, 80), S Thompson (capt; D Hartley, 68), P Barnard (S Tonga'uiha, 40), D Gérard (M Lord, 24), C Short, P Tupai, D Fox, D Browne.
Biarritz: B Dambielle (J Marlu, 68); P Bidabé, M Gaitan, A Masi, S Bobo; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili (J Dupuy, 73); P Balan (Avril, 63), B August (capt; B Noirot, 30), D Avril (B Lecouls, 52), J Thion, D Couzinet (S Dellape, 42), S Betsen, I Harinordoquy (M Dridi, 73), T Lièvremont.
Referee: D Courtney (Ireland).
Heineken Cup quarter-finals
Biarritz (1) v Northampton (8)
Scarlets (2) v Munster (7)
Wasps (3) v Leinster (6)
Leicester (4) v Stade Français (5)
(Seedings in brackets. Ties to be played on 30, 31 March and 1 April)Reuse content