Fourth time's a charm
Graham Jenkins at the Stade de France
May 22, 2010
Toulouse celebrate victory over Biarritz © Getty Images
Toulouse, the undeniable kings of the Heineken Cup, cemented their place at the top of European rugby with a classy and clinical display to notch an incredible fourth win in the world's greatest club competition.
The result may have been in doubt until the final whistle but the fact this contest went down to the wire was as much to do with Toulouse's failure to kill the game off as it was a battling Biarritz side that appeared to lack belief that they could topple their Top 14 rivals.
The boot of Toulouse fly-half David Skrela tormented Biarritz for most of the afternoon and it is the kicking exploits of the assured No.10 that their legions of fans must thank for their latest European triumph. Veteran hooker Williams Servat may have claimed the Man of the Match honour for an admirable performance at the coal face but it was Skrela pulling the strings in a vintage display of control and precision.
The 31-year-old has rediscovered a rich vein of form just in time for next year's Rugby World Cup and his efforts in steering Toulouse to the Stade de France saw him rewarded with a recent recall to Marc Lievremont's France squad - and with this kind of display he is making a big play for Francois Trinh-Duc's No.10 shirt. But that debate is for another day for this day should be about Les Rouge et Noir.
If the place was not hot enough to start, with temperatures in the French capital pushing 80 degrees, the pyrotechnics ensured we had reached boiling point by kick off. In contrast, Biarritz, despite starting brightly, were off the boil having sat out the last three weeks - an enforced rest they will surely rue as a battle-hardened Toulouse, with enviable strength in depth to power their post-season push, strangled them into submission.
This was always going to be a close contest due to the side's familiarity with each other but they managed to serve up an entertaining finale if not the most thrilling in the tournament's 15-year history.
Biarritz stole an early advantage thanks to Yachvili whose two penalties delighted their support and stunned a Toulouse side that you suspected may be still feeling the effects of their Top 14 semi-final defeat to Perpignan just a week ago. But there was no panic from Guy Noves' side, stacked as they are with experience throughout with several Heineken Cup Final veterans amongst them. But the same could not be said for their long-time coach, 17 years at the helm, who berated his star-studded line-up whilst kneeling at the touchline in his familiar pose.
The target of much of his frustration would have been Biarritz No.8 Imanol Harinordoquy who was once again at the centre of proceedings at the lineout and in the loose. But shorn of the Iron Man-like protective headgear he wore in their semi-final victory over Munster, the Basque talisman appeared stripped of some of his super powers. Instead, sporting a Phantom-esque mask he had to make do with a supporting role and his warrior-like spirit was unable to lift his side to great heights.
Bravery was also not lacking from captain Jerome Thion with the lock at the heart of his side's efforts throughout. But sadly he is left to reflect on another painful final defeat following those in the colours of Perpignan in 2003 and with his Biarritz in 2006. In contrast it was third time lucky for his Toulouse counterpart Thierry Dusautoir.
Toulouse muscled their way back into the contest with Fritz slotting a monster penalty from inside his half to not only put his side on the board but stop the rot that threatened to derail his side's latest bid for European glory.
Fritz went from hero to villain to allow Yachvili to restore his side's advantage but Toulouse's power game laid the platform for a comeback with Skrela pulling his side level before Fritz put them ahead for the first time in the contest just before the break. That blow seemed harsh on a Biarritz side that had more than held their own on the opening period and they were left squabbling with each other as they headed to tunnel - puzzled as to why they were left chasing the game.
As they left the field you were left thinking whether that was all that Biarritz could muster - they appeared to have thrown their best at Toulouse but had come up some way short. The Toulouse fans were baying for blood following the re-start, roaring each phase that carried their side closer to the line, demanding the killer blow as if this was a public hanging. But they were unable to lock the Biarritz defence and a crucial dropped pass from winger Maxime Medard ended a promising move.
Grateful for the reprieve, Biarritz launched a stunning counter, with hooker Benoit August of all people leading the way with a kick and chase, but he was cruelly hauled down off the ball by Toulouse lock Patricio Albacete who was sent to the sin-bin as a result. A penalty try would have been harsh with the offence having taken place on the 22 and with covering defenders in attendance but Yachvili was able to pull his side level from the kicking tee.
Suddenly the Biarritz faithful were alive and in full voice again but Toulouse's class shone through once more with no sign of panic and Skrela's boot to restore his side's lead and extend it before they were back to full strength. That would have been Biarritz's time to strike but they never looked like conjuring the score that would have seen the game swing back in their favour and instead their efforts were blighted by wild passes.
Another Skrela penalty and suddenly the game was all too one-sided. But this is the Heineken Cup - and we don't do processions. A Skrela miss offered Biarritz a lifeline but when Yachvili made way as the game entered the last ten minutes you sensed even they had conceded the game. But that wise man Noves was having none of it and could again be seen berating his side, painfully aware how games can turn when you least expect it.
And so it did - almost. Biarritz conjured a fine running line from almost nowhere with the pace of winger Takudzwa Ngwenya, shackled for much of the game, creating the space for centre Karmichael Hunt to cross for a try. Courrent's conversion flew over and suddenly it was a two-point game - how exactly I am not quite sure.
The impressive Iain Balshaw and Ngwenya were then repeatedly deployed in the hope they could find another hole in a tiring Toulouse defence but they were denied time and time again. It was left to Kiwi scrum-half Byron Kelleher to get the party started by booting the ball into touch.
Toulouse remain a class act and a class apart.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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