Saracens 45 Biarritz 16: Hill and Vyvyan lead the charge as old guard raise standard

Click to follow
The Independent Online

So Leicester are gone, and Wasps must fight the good fight to the bitter end with no guarantee of redemption. As recently as a couple of seasons ago, even the remote prospect of the most trophy-laden teams in the country both failing to make the knockout stage of the Heineken Cup would have led to ominous rumblings in the bowels of Twickenham, wild mirth in the Celtic lands and a celebratory glass raised in the inner sanctum of the International Board. "Professional club rugby? We said it wouldn't work, and it hasn't."

Unfortunately for those who pray the English clubs will fall victim to plague and pestilence – and there are still plenty of them out there – the Premiership movement can now afford to lose Leicester from Europe, and maybe Wasps as well. Why? Because the weaker candidates have grown strong on their weekly diet of hard league competition. Gloucester and London Irish are handily placed for home draws in the Heineken quarter-finals, and if Saracens perform half as well at Glasgow on Friday night as they did in the second half of this spectacular victory over Biarritz, they will be similarly rewarded. A knockout match at Vicarage Road with Chris Jack and Neil de Kock playing out of their socks? Toulouse themselves might blanch at the thought.

According to Brian Ashton, the England head coach, the best 64 home-qualified individuals play their rugby anywhere but Saracens. There was no representative of the Watford-based club in the 32-man Six Nations party announced last Wednesday, and there wasn't one in the equally populous Saxons squad either. "It seems there isn't anyone here worth his salt," said Alan Gaffney, in tones of deepest irony.

Ashton might argue that if the Saracens director of rugby is going to insist on picking two South Africans, a New Zealander and an Italian in the spine of his side, he really cannot expect much joy on the representative front. There again, the heavyweight Biarritz pack conceded a late penalty try to a front row featuring Tom Mercey, a 20-year-old prop of enormous promise, while a beefed-up Richard Haughton gave the Basques all the grief they could handle in open field. Saracens also have a bright young centre in Adam Powell hanging around the place. Vicarage Road is not a vacuum filled by foreigners. Anything but.

There again, some of the Englishmen who played an influential hand in condemning the visitors to their heaviest defeat in any competition in almost a decade were old stagers, who are either no longer of interest to the national selectors or were not of much interest in the first place. We are talking here of three forwards: Richard Hill, one of the chosen few who won the World Cup in 2003 and was, in his pomp, the finest all-purpose loose forward in the sport; Hugh Vyvyan, who sneaked a cap off the bench in 2004; and Kris Chesney, who never sneaked anything in his life.

Hill is on one leg these days – the saga of his bad knee is gruesome indeed – and, as a consequence, he takes any number of short cuts during the course of a game. However, his short cuts are cleverer than everyone else's, because he knows his way round a rugby field better than everyone else. Time and again on Saturday, he appeared to be moving uneasily; time and again, he made an important intervention that drove the Basques to distraction. The man commands respect.

Vyvyan, the heart-and-souler par excellence, deserved his man of the match gong, for it was his try from Glen Jackson's dart and offload in the final attack of the first half that turned the game. Biarritz were heartily sick of the sight of him come the end, just as they were sick of Chesney, whose naked aggression amid the mud and bullets was something to behold. No one tried harder to rough up the visitors – a bunch of fives here, a hearty shove there, a dark stare somewhere else – and he was understandably exasperated that when a proper scrap broke out he was 50 metres away. Justice? There ain't none.

Before anyone wanders off with the impression that Biarritz crossed the Channel in one of their anti-rugby moods, there were signs early in the piece that they very much wanted to play. Imanol Harinordoquy, who respects English rugby the way the Sex Pistols respected the monarchy, put himself about to considerable effect, and it was no great surprise when Romain Cabannes took advantage of a chargedown on Andy Farrell to open the scoring. As the interval beckoned, the Basques were 13-6 up and sitting pretty. Had Vyvyan not crossed when he did, anything might have occurred.

What actually occurred was a Saracens deluge – 40 minutes of high-octane rugby in which they scored 32 points and conceded three. "We needed to be more direct," Gaffney explained. "Initially, we were guilty of playing zigzag rugby, running into what I call 'mirage space' – that is, space you think exists but doesn't. Biarritz are no slouches and they pride themselves on their defence, but once we started hitting them up the middle we took a lot of stopping."

Gaffney is the soundest of strategists, and if, as he says he wants to, he stays at Saracens on a part-time basis after handing over to his fellow Australian Eddie Jones at the end of the season, the club will continue to prosper. They have a top-drawer management team, pots of money and an excellent group of players, few of whom will be required for international business just yet. Leicester? Who needs them?

Saracens: Tries Jack 2, Vyvyan, Penney, penalty; Conversions Jackson 2, Russell; Penalties Jackson 4. Biarritz: Try Cabannes; Conversion Depuy; Penalties Depuy 3.

Saracens: B Russell; R Haughton, K Sorrell, A Farrell (A Powell, 74), R Penney; G Jackson (K Ratuvou, 79), N De Kock (capt, A Dickens, 79); N Lloyd, F Ongaro (A Kyriacou, 80), C Johnston (T Mercey, 79), C Jack, H Vyvyan (T Ryder, 80), K Chesney, R Hill, B Skirving (P Gustard, 79).

Biarritz: N Brusque; P Bidabe, R Cabannes, D Traille (A Masi, 45), T Ngwenya (B Thiery, 54); J Peyrelongue, J Depuy; P Balan (B Lecouls, 32; Balan, 53), B August (B Noirot, 65), D Avril, J Thion (capt), T Hall, S Vahafolau (S Betsen, 53), I Harinordoquy, J Cronje.

Referee: N Owens (Wales).