Toulouse crowned kings of Europe - again
Huw Richards at the Stade de France
May 22, 2010
Maxime Medard congratulates David Skrela after another successful penalty
© Getty Images
Toulouse extended their superiority over the rest of European club rugby to a fourth Heineken Cup triumph, two more than anyone else in the tournament's first 15 seasons, by outlasting Biarritz 21-19 at the Stade de France on Saturday.
For the third time their victory came over French opposition, with Biarritz going the way of Perpignan and Stade Francais before them. This was not vintage Toulouse any more than those two previous wins had been. Instead we had a reminder that their extraordinary consistency - they have also been in 17 consecutive French championship semi-finals - is built on steel as well as style.
They struggled in the first half-hour to trail by six points, were reduced to 14 men for 10 minutes after half-time and then had to withstand both pressure and tension after Karmichael Hunt had scored the only try of the game for Biarritz to cut the margin to two points with five minutes to go.
The decisive spell was the 10 minutes when Patricio Albacete was in the sin-bin. Level at the start, Toulouse were six points ahead at the end of their spell with 14 men thanks to two superbly taken drop-goals by David Skrela, part of a personal tally of 21 points in a match where all of Toulouse's points came from the boot.
A beautiful bright Parisian afternoon appeared to offer perfect conditions for the French game to show itself at its vibrant best. Against this was recall of the two previous all-French finals, neither of which left much in the way of happy memories outside Toulouse, winners in both. As one French journalist said beforehand, "The trouble is that these teams know each other so well. They have played each other 10 times in the last five seasons. I think it will be tight."
Toulouse started fast and seriously threatened the Biarritz line with their first attack. Byron Kelleher made the initial incision, found Thierry Dusautoir where a good openside flanker should always be in attack, and the Toulouse skipper's pass sent Jean Bouilhou to within 10 metres before he was halted.
Toulouse won the ruck and Kelleher's pass was intended to set up a drop-goal for Yannick Jauzion, but the giant centre's shot was charged down. After that it was Biarritz who had the better of the first quarter, and played the more enterprising rugby more associated with Toulouse. One assault, launched from Biarritz's own line when David Skrela's 10th minute penalty struck the post and rebounded to Imanol Harinordoquy, sent pacy American wing Takudzwa Ngwenya haring down the right, through several phases and concluded only a few yards from the Toulouse line.
And where Skrela couldn't quite land his penalty, Dimitri Yachvili was twice on target for Biarritz, giving them a six point lead by the 15th minute. Toulouse finally broke their duck when long-range marksman Florian Fritz was on target from his own half to make it 6-3 after 21 minutes, but the opening stages had belonged to Biarritz. One reason for this was a clear edge at the breakdown, which produced results again for them in the 28th minute when Yachvili landed his third consecutive penalty to extend the lead once more to six points.
That, though was as good as it got for Biarritz, as Toulouse at last hit their stride in the run-up to half-time. A powerful eight-man scrummage won Skrela the chance to cut the gap to 9-6 with a 31st minute penalty, then their best attack since the first minute saw Maxim Medard take the outside against Iain Balshaw and get to within three yards of the line. While that assault came to nothing, it portended the shift in balance that saw Toulouse take a 12-9 lead into the interval, with another Skrela penalty followed by a Fritz drop-goal that Mr Barnes referred to the television match official before ruling that the rebound from the right post had indeed dropped across the bar.
Toulouse continued in the same idiom after the break, with Dusautoir turning up everywhere in attack. They could have scored had Medard, with an overlap outside him, not spilled a pass in the 46th minute. Instead there was a fresh, potentially game-changing twist two minutes later. Biarritz hooker Benoit August chased a kick ahead and Toulouse lock Partricio Albacete pulled him down without the ball. Albacete went off to the sin-bin, Yachvili's left boot did the rest and it was level once more.
Toulouse might have been content to see out their 10 minutes of shorthandedness without further damage. Instead, in keeping with this unpredictable contest, they retook the lead as Skrela dropped a 30 metre goal in the 51st minute, then extended it as the outside-half landed a further drop in the last play before the Argentinian lock returned.
When yet another powerful scrum allowed Skrela to extend the lead to nine points it looked, with Toulouse dominating position and possession, all over. Instead, with five minutes to go, there was one final twist. Centre Arnaud Mignardi broke on the left, Ngwenya injected pace before timing his pass perfectly and the AFL-bound Aussie Hunt touched down. Yachvili landed the goal and Biarritz were back within two. They tried furiously to make the decisive break in a tense final five minutes, but Toulouse held on for a victory they deserved.