French sides power to Paris finale
May 2, 2010
Toulouse's David Skrela and Biarritz's Dimitri Yachvili were the beneficaries of dominant packs © Getty Images
And so the stage is set for this season's Heineken Cup Final with an all-French cast of Toulouse and Biarritz underlining the current balance of power in the European game.
The rugby on show at the Stade Municipal, where Toulouse proved too good for defending champions Leinster, and at the Estadio Anoeta, where Biarritz out-muscled Munster, may not have lived up to the delights served up in the quarter-finals but there could be no doubting the commitment from the sides or from the fans who despite being battered by the elements ensured at least a feast of colour for the eyes. But that is not to say the semi-finals were not enthralling - they could be nothing else with a place in the final of European club rugby's showpiece event up for grabs - with brutal and clinical performances from the victors echoing their country's stranglehold on the rest of the continent.
The task facing Leinster was always going to be a daunting one given Toulouse's unrivalled tournament pedigree but Michael Cheika's side could boast a memorable triumph in the south west of France in recent memory and will have travelled in hope despite the continued absence of first choice fly-half Jonathan Sexton - reduced to water boy duties due to his fractured jaw.
Toulouse fly-half David Skrela was the tormentor-in-chief with a 21 point haul but his ability to dictate proceedings was only possible due to a dominant forward effort. The Toulouse scrum in particular were in a class of their own forcing the early withdrawal of Leinster prop Cian Healey in favour of the more experienced CJ van der Linde in a bid to shore up the front line but the Springbok's introduction did little to stem the tide.
With the perfect platform from which to build, three-time winners Toulouse took control of the contest in a four minute spell early in the second half with centre Yannick Jauzion and Skrela crossing for tries but Leinster showed their class by refusing to buckle and notched a superbly worked try of their own through No.8 Jamie Heaslip. But it was a rare high point with the hosts moving quickly to snuff out any hope of a late turnaround. In the end Leinster were left to rue a couple of costly slips - most notably scrum-half Eoin Reddan's failure to claim a first half score when a desperate tackle from winger Vincent Clerc dislodged the ball as the No.9 looked to touch down.
With Leinster's brave title defence ended, only Munster could prevent this season's Stade de France finale in Paris from taking on a distinct Gallic-flavour. Tony McGahan's side were also shorn of key personnel including captain Paul O'Connell and speedster Doug Howlett but so were their hosts Biarritz - stripped of the not inconsiderable talent of centre Damien Traille. In a scrappy contest, that will never rank as one of the tournament's greatest match-ups, Biarritz over-powered the visitors with dominant forward effort, which like that of Toulouse, was more than enough to account for the best of Irish rugby. But such were Biarritz's shortcomings that the men of Munster will see this game as a huge opportunity missed.
Biarritz failed to find the finesse to compliment their physical superiority and rarely troubled the Munster line but the Irish side's indiscipline and the unrelenting pressure of the home side's pack allowed scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili to kick his side to victory. Munster could not shake off the shackles imposed on them by a side who can only qualify for next season's Heineken Cup by lifting the trophy this in Paris. The Irish province, dumped out of the tournament at this stage last season at Leinster's hand, failed to find the extra gear that you always expect them to summon when it comes to the crunch but you know they will be back next season.
The warrior-like Biarritz No.8 Imanol Harinordoquy led by example in San Sebastien © Getty Images
Both matches lacked the kind of edge-of-the-seat drama we have been treated to in this season's competition but maybe we have been spoilt in recent weeks? There can be little doubt that the best sides won out in both games, a fact accepted by both vanquished opponents who were left to rue their own mistakes rather than claim injustice. We were also treated to big match performances from some big players - and not just the headline-grabbing Skrela and Yachvili. Toulouse's South African No.8 Shaun Sowerby and his Biarritz counterpart Imanol Harinordoquy delivered top-class performances, marshalling their troops from the back of the scrum like charioteers in front of a baying public and spearheading their side's attacking endeavours in the loose. Both benefitted from the dominance of their packs but let us not take anything away from their stellar performances with Harinordoquy's bravery in particular is worthy of note - taking to the field with a mask to protect his broken nose that was perhaps more Iron Man than Phantom of the Opera if his heroics were anything to go by.
And so both sides will head north to the nation's capital in three weeks time to do battle for the European crown. The Toulouse and Biarritz faithful roared their sides home this weekend and will relish the chance to do so again but there may be some concern that the 'full house' signs were not raised at either venue. But with these latest results, what few tickets, if any, remain for the final are sure to be snapped up without delay ahead of what will be the third all-French showdown in the tournament's history. Toulouse have won those two previous clashes - against Perpignan in 2003 and Stade Francais in 2005 - and will no doubt start as favourites as they target a notable treble and their fourth title.
At the end of a season so completely dominated by French rugby, with the national side's march to the Six Nations Grand Slam still fresh in the mind, it is perhaps fitting that their leading club side's have a say in the last act of Europe's premier club competition.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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