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

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).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried