English clubs rise to the occasion
April 2, 2007
"The temptation as you contemplate the all Anglo-Welsh Heineken Cup semi-finals is to congratulate the French on getting their boycott started early." Huw Richards reports
But anyone who thinks that they were not fully committed to this year's tournament should have been sitting next but one to Fabien Galthie in the press box at Leicester (fellow-journo Sam Peters, who was sat next to him, expects his hearing to return sometime in the next 48 hours) as he barraged his coaching colleagues via walkie-talkie with a bellowed stream of instruction, or seen his utter dejection at the end.
Not even journalists who'd see a weekend in France or Spain replaced by a couple of days in Coventry and Leicester could match his disappointment.
Of all French clubs Biarritz and Stade have been those most desperate to add the Heineken to national honours, wanting the European prize as the final proof of their standing.
Stade at least have the consolation of losing to a good team in a terrific match. Once again Welford Road showed it has few equals as a big-match venue - if Stradey had the edge this weekend it was because seeing it rocking has been such a rare experience over the last two or three years.
There was no classier performer than Stade full-back Juan Hernandez to be seen anywhere this weekend, but the Tigers sheer resilience saw them through, not for the first time.
There was no such consolation for Biarritz, once again undone by their desire to win while expending as little effort as possible.
It seemed a reasonable assumption that they could beat Northampton anywhere and anyhow they wished, and maybe that was their problem as they failed to close out the victory and were undone by Robbie Kydd's interception.
One theory developing in the press room at Leicester was that this was Sky's contribution to April Fool's Day, with the real match, unbroadcast, producing the expected Biarritz win.
But Biarritz really bring their European frustrations on themselves. Their dull percentage play is wholly at odds both with French archetypes and the spontaneity and inspiration preached by their greatest player, Serge Blanco.
But any sympathy for M Blanco is limited by his role as chief French club sabre rattler and periodic belittler of the Celtic contribution to the Heineken. Whether this unlikely result proves inspiration, distraction or compensation to Northampton as they fight relegation remains to be seen.
Wasps meanwhile completed the first national wipeout of the weekend, that of the Irish. Leinster rarely looked threatening and were hopelessly exposed in the 10 minutes after half-time when, only two points down, they faced 14 men.
Wasps may have been tempted to tell Lawrence Dallaglio 'go away Lawrence, we're better without you' when their skipper returned from his temporary disciplinary exile with his team two tries further to the good.
Simon Shaw's two scoring passes helped him to a Man of the Match award as a key member of a dominant pack, but there was perhaps an even stronger case for Tom Rees who performed brilliantly both at the breakdown and as a Kronfeld-like support runner.
The demise of the Irish had begun on Friday night at Stradey. Two moments symbolised Llanelli's triumph and Munster's demise.
First Scarlets full-back Barry Davies bounced a huge penalty off the crossbar and over - a reprise of Tim Stimpson's matchwinning kick against the Scarlets in the semi-final a few years ago except that this glissaded perhaps 25 metres into the crowd instead of barely crawling over - to launch a 10 point surge at the end of the first half that ensured the interval scoreline reflected the intensity of their opening barrage.
Then, during the half-time mascot race, Munster's muscle-bound sumo wrestler was tackled from behind and limped from the field visibly deflated, his head hanging to one side.
Munster never quit - they don't. But they were beaten as comprehensively as they ever have been in a meaningful Heineken match in recent years, undone by Llanelli's edge at the breakdown, Regan King's lethal breaks at centre and a superb display from the much-maligned Stephen Jones.
Scarlets are now all that stands in the way of the first ever all-English final. The bad news is that they've to go to Leicester for their semi-final - no Welsh team has yet had a home semi-final draw in the Heineken.
Tigers, though, have not won either of their previous Heineken ties at the Walker Stadium. If Llanelli can produce the quality and intensity they managed last Friday, Leicester's fourth final is far from a foregone conclusion.