Biarritz squeeze home in epic
April 10, 2010
Ospreys centre Andrew Bishop races away from Biarritz fullback Iain Balshaw in San Sebastian
© Getty Images
Biarritz reached the last four of the Heineken Cup after edging out the Ospreys 29-28 in an absorbing quarter-final clash in San Sebastian on Saturday afternoon which more than matched Leinster's dramatic win over Clermont Auvergne the night before for quality and excitement.
Takudzwa Ngwenya put the hosts in control when he produced what is likely to prove the try of the season but the Ospreys only trailed by a point at the interval after responding with two fine tries of their own through captain Ryan Jones and fullback Lee Byrne.
Biarritz reclaimed the momentum when Iain Balshaw grounded in the early stages of the second half only to see the Ospreys set up a dramatic finale courtesy of Nikki Walker's 75th-minute touchdown. The visitors then had the chance to nick it but Dan Biggar's drop goal attempt in injury time came up short, sparking wild celebrations at the Estadio Anoeta.
However, as the Biarritz players celebrated, their Ospreys counterparts struggled to hold back the tears after losing a game that they will feel they should have won. Indeed, they had been the better side for long spells and reacted quite brilliantly to falling behind after less than 30 seconds. The visitors failed to gather the kick-off, allowing Julien Peyrelongue to pilfer possession back for the Basques. Two phases later, Dimitri Yachvili fed the ball back to Damien Traille, who had dropped back into the pocket, and the veteran centre split the sticks with a drop goal attempt, much to the delight of a partisan home crowd.
The Ospreys then squandered two glorious try-scoring opportunities. The first came after a tremendous break from Byrne deep inside his own half. The Wales fullback stepped inside two players before bursting into Biarritz territory. Byrne had a man inside him but he unwisely decided to chip the ball wide to Shane Williams, who was promptly crowded into touch by the covering Biarritz backs.
The visitors blew another terrific opening moments later. Andrew Bishop pounced on a dreadful handling error by Balshaw in midfield but after cruising clear of two tacklers, the centre inexplicably ignored the supporting Tommy Bowe and was eventually taken into contact some 15 metres from the Biarritz line.
Unsurprisingly, the Ospreys' profligacy was punished - and in quite remarkable fashion, American international winger Ngwenya crossing in the right corner after a quite stunning 85-metre run down the right wing during which he had left both Mike Phillips and Williams trailing in his wake. It was a most remarkable score and one which fully warranted the two added points which followed courtesy of Yachvili's beautifully-struck conversion attempt.
The Estadio Anoeta was rocking but the Ospreys continued to look threatening every time they got the ball in hand and they deservedly got themselves right back into the game when Jones finished smartly on 19 minutes after Williams and James Hook had combined well to unlock the Biarritz defence.
Biggar showed impressive mental strength for a 20-year-old to convert, thus bringing the Ospreys to within three points. However, Biarritz's response to Jones' score was both swift and impressive, Yachvili landing a penalty from 40 metres out before Traille slotted over another drop goal.
The Ospreys, though, were still playing the more fluid rugby and they carved Biarritz open once more five minutes before the break, Byrne diving over in the right corner after a sublime cross-field passing move. Biggar failed to convert but he nailed a fine drop goal attempt in the dying seconds of the half to leave an enthralling game beautifully poised at the break.
After seeing the Ospreys reduce a nine-point advantage to a solitary point, Biarritz unsurprisingly attempted to reassert their dominance at the start of the second half. However, a promising break from Karmichael Hunt came to nothing and Balshaw came up horribly short with a drop goal attempt, thus allowing Biggar to put the visitors in front for the first time in the match by landing a 45th-minute drop goal.
But their lead did not last long. Shortly after the restart, Biggar was pinged for tackling Ngwenya without the ball and Yachvili landed the resulting kick on goal with the minimum of fuss. Both Ngwenya and Yachvili were involved again when Biarritz took a firm grip on the game two minutes later. Yachvili released his right winger with a sumptuous looping pass out to the flank and after the US Eagles ace had lofted the ball forward, Balshaw was on hand to collect the bouncing ball and slide over.
Unluckily for the former England international, that was to be his last significant contribution to the game as he injured himself in the act of scoring and was forced off on 53 minutes, just as Biggar was knocking over a penalty to bring the Ospreys back to within a try.
However, Traille had not gone away and after a thrilling spell in which the action went from end to end and the momentum shifted from one side to the other, he landed his third drop goal of the game to restore Biarritz's eight-point advantage.
Biggar then saw a penalty and a drop goal attempt fail and it appeared that the game was up for the Ospreys. However, with just over five minutes remaining, Phillips scythed through the Biarritz defence before leaving replacement wing Walker with an easy finish under the posts.
Biggar's conversion drew the Ospreys to within a point but he failed with a last-gasp drop goal attempt and the expensively-assembled Welsh outfit had bowed at the quarter-final stage of European club rugby's premier cup competition for the third year in a row.
Some of the region's followers will argue that their side should have been awarded a penalty in the lead-up to Biggar's missed drop goal attempt as Dimitri Yachvili appeared offside at one point but, ultimately, they will have to concede that Biarritz had been the more clinical on the day and deserved to go through.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September