Biarritz, the proud Basques who also happen to be France's reigning champions, got last autumn's opening Heineken Cup defeat at home to Bath out of their system and laid down an impressive marker for this season's tournament. Driven forward by an all-international back row in which creativity dovetailed with the one-man crushing machine that is Serge Betsen, they were too powerful for Cardiff.
The tries took a while to come, but Biarritz contributed to a red-letter opening weekend for the French. They like a spot of beach rugby back home, and to begin with just the sand was missing as the ball was given plenty of air. Cardiff quickly identified Philippe Bernat-Salles as a major threat; then again, they were a long time forewarned. The "silver fox", veteran of 26 tries in 41 Test matches for France, scored for Bègles against the Blue-and-Blacks in their first-ever European tie seven years ago. Bernat-Salles twice caused panic when he shot down the short side of scrums in the first half, but twice the ever-watchable wing came to earth with a heavy bump, victim of very-nearly-late challenges by Dan Baugh and Ken Fourie which may have been accidental, but probably were not.
Aided by some sleight-of-hand in tight quarters from John Tait, their Canadian second row, Cardiff had their share of possession but tended towards lateral handling moves .More than once, Biarritz threatened to break through only for butter-fingered Guillaume Boussès to hold them up. It was left to the respective boots of Iestyn Harris and Biarritz's Dimitri Yachvili to post the points. Harris opened with two penalties, Yachvili replied in kind, and when Olivier Roumat was penalised at a line-out precisely on the halfway line, Harris impressively made it 9-6 to Cardiff at half-time.
Yet for all the approving nods coming from the watching Serge Blanco, Biarritz's most famous rugby son and now president of the French League, the spirit of adventure seemed in direct contrast to the number of tries likely to be seen. Such is the cancelling-out of effect these days of two evenly matched defences.
No French club have won the European Cup since Brive, next door at the old National Stadium, in 1997, and they have learned the hard way that flair needs to come with formation.
The chance of a gap appearing increased when Peter Rogers was sent to the sin-bin after 51 minutes. The Cardiff loosehead produced the prop's staple anguished look, but he had been blatantly offside at an unthreatening Biarritz ruck. Biarritz poured forward and Marc Stcherbina, the new arrival from New South Wales, made his presence felt in south Wales, forcing play to the brink of the Cardiff line. The attack was only briefly held, and Christophe Milhères, Betsen's impressive partner on the flank, squeezed over at the right-hand corner and Yachvili stylishly converted.
Cardiff's coach, Dai Young, could offer words of advice at first hand when he stood in for Rogers at the next scrum, and his side stayed within a try of snatching it when Harris launched another huge penalty goal after 68 minutes. But Cardiff had Matt Allen carried off after coming off worst from tackling John Isaac and, after a long stoppage, Biarritz wrapped the game up in the next play. From a line-out, left to right, the ball found its way to Milhères, whose deft chip was meat and drink to Bernat-Salles. Cue familiar wide-armed celebrations from one of Europe's supreme try-poachers, and deep despair for Cardiff.
Cardiff: R Williams; N Walne, J Robinson, M Allen (N Robinson, 74), C Morgan; I Harris, R Powell (R Smith, 64); P Rogers (D Young, 62-63), A Lewis, K Fourie, H Senekal, J Tait (A Jones, 67), R Appleyard, D Baugh, M Williams (capt).
Biarritz: N Brusque; P Bernat-Salles, G Boussès (M Stcherbina, 54), J Isaac, P Bidabe; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili; E Menieu, J-M Gonzalez (capt), D Avril, O Nauroy (O Tonita, 74), O Roumat, S Betsen, T Lièvremont (D Chouchan, 60), C Milhères.
Referee: C White (England).
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