Saints stunned by Biarritz blitz

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The Independent Online

It was one of those days when nothing was going to stop the home side from making their mark in the Heineken Cup. The sun shone, more than 10,000 fans from the town turned out to roar their side on and the greatest rugby son of Biarritz, Serge Blanco, came to add his seal of approval.

It was one of those days when nothing was going to stop the home side from making their mark in the Heineken Cup. The sun shone, more than 10,000 fans from the town turned out to roar their side on and the greatest rugby son of Biarritz, Serge Blanco, came to add his seal of approval.

If Northampton needed any reminding they were in for a hell of a battle as they launched their defence of the Heineken Cup, it came in the opening 20 minutes as the French Cup holders raced into a 17-point lead.

Forget the stories about the best days of Biarritz rugby being over, this was a stunning performance by a team studded with ageing stars like Olivier Roumat, Philippe Bernat-Salles, Frano Botica and Glen Osborne but desperate to inspire a new revolution.

In the dynamic French international flanker Serge Betsen they not only had the man of the match, but a player who is going to grace the Heineken Cup this season with his link play and perpetual motion. In much the same way as Gloucester announced their arrival in the tournament with a victory at Llanelli, so Biarritz took their place at the high table of European rugby with great relish.

The injury problems that the Saints are facing at the moment made it difficult for them to take any of last season's momentum into the first match in their defence of the title and John Steele will be hoping to get his English half-backs, Matt Dawson and Paul Grayson, back in harness as soon as possible.

Not only did the champions miss their tactical acumen, but they were shorn of their top two goalkickers as well. It meant that Ali Hepher was left to shoulder that responsibility and he did not have a great afternoon with the boot.

Having been stung by that two-try opening burst from the home side, Northampton gradually worked their way back into the game through their forwards, but then failed to take advantage after the Biarritz scrum-half, Nicholas Morlaes, was sent to the sin bin. He left for 10 minutes a moment after the teenage fullback, Ian Vaas, had given the Saints some heart with a try. That is when the champions should have turned up the heat.

Their pack had just started to get on a roll and now was the time to go for the jugular. Last season the champions would have known how to make the most of their opportunities, but their inability to take the golden opportunity highlighted the crisis of confidence and form they have been suffering to date this term.

Having steadied the ship, the next task was not to fall any further behind.

The towering Roumat had other ideas, though, and it was his line-out steal that paved the way for Philippe Bidabe to grab the third home try. That score was crucial and it forced Northampton to throw everything into attack. That led to tries, but also to mistakes.

The gap was reduced to nine points at one stage, but two Botica penalties kept Biarritz in control. The late charge by the Saints, with Matt Stewart, Hepher, Rob Hunter and Ben Cohen picking up tries, made the scoreboard look more respectable, but never threatened to spoil Biarritz' great day.

Biarritz: G Osborne; P Bernat-Salles, S Bonetti, N Couttet, P Bidabe; F Botica, N Morlaes; E Menieu, J-M Gonzalez, D Avril, L Matiu, O Roumat, S Betsen, C Milheres, O Nauroy.

Northampton: I Vass; S Webster, L Martin, A Bateman, B Cohen; A Hepher, J Bramhall; G Pagel, S Brotherstone, M Stewart, J Phillips, O Brouzet, T Rodber, B Pountney, P Lam (capt).

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).

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