Last weekend French rugby had the opportunity to cap a remarkable season. Not only did the national team beat New Zealand in their own back yard in November, but they then stormed on to a Six Nations Championship and Grand Slam. While the quality of Top-14 rugby has dwarfed that across the Channel (Biarritz only just scraped into the top half of the league), Toulouse and Toulon both reached the final of Europe’s two-tiered European club competitions. European rugby was to be monopolised last weekend.
So the script read anyway.
Toulouse and Biarritz were up first – either way a French side was destined to win Europe’s most prestigious prize. Toulouse (always an ominous team to play!) made a slow start to the game, pressured by the men nicknamed BO. It was anything but sweet. Toulouse certainly did not resemble the aristocrats of European rugby (no other team has even won three titles) that they are so often lauded to be. In fact they were distinctly ordinary. They gifted Biarritz a series of penalties due to their early indiscipline and general lack of go-forward at the collisions. Biarritz, looking to go one better than their defeat to Munster in the 2006 final, slowly moved into a 9-3 lead and seemed well set. Dimitri Yachvili was never one to turn down a shot at goal – don’t England fans well know!
This was not, however, the Toulouse that we have become accustomed to. In fact, their performance up until now was just far too uncharacteristic of them to continue. The red and black scrum, which had previously lifted Biarritz’s Campbell Johnstone off his feet, began to turn the screw. Where internationals abounded, it was an all-French front row which ultimately shunted Toulouse to victory. While international law changes have distracted some, the French have retained a keen eye on the role of the scrum in modern rugby. What is more they are brilliant exponents of it. Jean-Baptiste Poux, William Servat and Benoît Lecouls were imperious on Saturday, gaining hard yards at the scrum and in the loose. After a long, hard season the energy started to sap from the Basque men – even the giant Imanol. Gaps appeared, penalties were conceded. After Florian Fritz had dropped his side into a 12-9 lead by half-time, Poux and his Toulouse team-mates seemed well on top.
And they should have finished the game there and then. Having worked an opening, Maxime Medard, with the line at his mercy, inexplicably fumbled the ball – much to the horror of his team-mates. Anything other than a Toulouse win and a shooting would be in order. Indeed, a turnaround almost transpired as Biarritz rallied. Benoît August hacked on and seemed set to flop on the bouncing ball (when the rotund hooker finally reached the try-line) and put his side back in the lead. Patricio Albacete had other ideas. In fact, he did Ramon Quiroga proud (the Peruvian goalkeeper who famously rugby-tackled an opposition player seventy yards from goal in the 1978 World Cup) as he hauled August to the ground prematurely and denied Biarritz a potential seven points. Albacete had ten minutes to think his misdemeanour over. Talk about taking one for the team!
Biarritz failed to take advantage of the extra man (Yachvili only momentarily tied the scores) as two drop-goals from David Skrela extended his sides’ lead. On the other hand, Damien Traille – the drop-goal destroyer of the Ospreys some weeks back – was unfortunately ruled out. Biarritz paid the price. Indeed, it was not until the final ten minutes when they were again able to work a scoring position. This time the entirely distant American winger Takudzwa Ngwenya slipped an inside ball to Karmichael Hunt who raced clear and set up an exciting last few minutes. Toulouse were anything but flustered. A late surge by Ian Balshaw (a sight to strike terror into anyone’s eyes!) did little, and when Yoann Maestri rose twice to seal crucial line-out ball Toulouse knew they had the game. Biarritz had been suffocated by devastating scrummaging. How fitting then that in this year of “Les Bleus”, an all-French front row turned the tide in Paris.
So to Jonny’s “latest injury”, sorry, I mean Sunday’s game – whoops! One would be forgiven for thinking a rugby match ever took place as the English press has gorged itself over the last few days, conjuring up some sort of “Wilko-less” apocalyptic trip to Australia. The idea that the national treasure might miss the summer tour down under and that we might have to give someone else a go (Heaven forbid!) is just too much for some people to take. The poor bloke left England for precisely this reason – to escape all the hype and media attention from these Jonny-guzzling journalists. Fat chance! Granted Wilkinson has been in good form for Toulon this season, and they certainly missed him when he was forced off injured against the Blues, but why didn’t Toulon have a replacement goal kicker? Tom May took over fly-half duties and struggled to cope with the new responsibilities. Not having a suitable replacement for someone so injury prone is scandalous, particularly in such an important game.
At any rate, let us give the Cardiff Blues some credit. They did actually win this one 28-21, believe it or not, becoming the first Welsh side to win a European trophy and simultaneously salvaging what was in danger of becoming a rather disappointing season. Before the game the Welsh region had largely been written off, despite having won a remarkable eight away games on the trot. Their turnaround since March has been quite staggering, so much so that veteran Kiwi number eight Xavier Rush is regretting his decision to leave at the end of this season and join Ulster. Despite having already agreed a two-year contract with the Irish province, he is seeking to wriggle his way out of it and stick with the Blues that little bit longer. He feels that the Blues offer him his best chance of earning Heineken Cup glory.
13-6 down at the break, Rush was instrumental in his side’s comeback in Marseille. Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny and Bradley Davies – all academy products – were the men who scored. First, May failed to clear his lines and was forced to touch down behind his own line, handing the Blues an attacking five-metre scrum. Rush took the ball on from the set-piece, before Roberts finally found a gap in the French side’s line. The effervescent Kiwi then looped a long pass out to Halfpenny to dive over in the corner, before he trundled on from the base of another scrum, the impetus of which eventually led to Davies barging over to put his side comfortably two scores ahead at 28-16. Thomas Sourice’s late try narrowed the score-line but May’s missed conversion attempt meant that they still needed a converted try to tie the game. The Blues ultimately held out for those crucial two minutes.
They had brutally punished Toulon for their lack of precision in the first half. Toulon almost scored straight from the kick-off when Joe Van Niekerk collected the tap back and charged forward. Like Juan Fernandez Lobbe just a few minutes later, he did not spot his supporting runners and the big man was brought down. The Blues escaped time and again until Sonny Bill Williams finally touched down from close-range. Williams is subject to something of a battle of wills, having been offered the chance to return home by the All Blacks as well as a bumper four-year deal from Toulon as they bid to extend his stay. His hit on Maama Molitika – who’s pretty massive himself! – will certainly have whetted Graham Henry’s appetite. Though Toulon went into the break ahead, the general control that they were exerting was lost upon Jonny Wilkinson’s withdrawal at the beginning of the second half. The Blues (having enjoyed a two-week rest) took advantage as Toulon, who had been forced into extra-time in the semi-final of the Top-14 against Clermont Auvergne last week, began to tire. The Blues’ young-guns ran in three tries and denied the partisan crowd of 49,000 the chance to see their side unify European silverware for the French.