Bristol 17 Stade Français 0: Special Brew too strong for Stade as Bristol storm home
The swanky Parisians of Stade Français have been known to attract upwards of 80,000 spectators for home matches in Le Championnat, many of them lured by the prospect of the Argentine maestro Juan Martin Hernandez, commonly known as "le Maradona du rugby", striding imperiously around the city of light in a pink shirt.
Hernandez was not at the Memorial Ground yesterday and there was no sign of the world's most effeminate sports kit. Instead, the Heineken Cup favourites turned up with David Skrela at outside-half and a khaki strip that somehow looked cleaner once it was covered in mud. It just about summed them up.
Skrela suffered the full range of torments as Bristol, revelling in some wild West Country weather, took great pleasure in rubbing French noses in the rain-sodden dirt. Not since the opening match of the World Cup, when the Pumas consigned Skrela to the bottom circle of hell, had the France outside-half endured such misery. Come to think of it, that game was not so long ago. Maybe Skrela should quit while he's behind.
There is not much fun to be had in the pivot position when opposition forwards are having themselves a fine time at the set-piece and stampeding all over the field in hungry pursuit of the loose ball. Skrela saw more of Andrew Blowers, Joe El Abd and Dan Ward-Smith – not to mention the profoundly intimidating Alfie To'oala in the final quarter – than he saw of his own inside centre, Brian Liebenberg. In a way, this was a blessed relief.
Liebenberg is nobody's idea of a creative midfielder à la Didier Codorniou; indeed, if Codorniou was "le petit prince", the exiled South African is "le grand lummox". He was not up to much yesterday and it was no surprise when he presented Neil Brew with an interception that resulted in the centre scoring the only try of the contest.
Not even at the fag-end of the game, when they were home if not dry, would Bristol concede a score to their visitors, who drew a blank for the first time in European competition.
"I'm sure we'll be given a warm reception in Paris after Christmas, but this was our best result in five years," said Richard Hill, the head coach, who was keen to praise his fellow back-roomer John Brain, the former Worcester director of rugby who was recruited, not uncontroversially, to work with the forward pack last summer.
"It starts up front and we had an all-English front row out there who did a superb job. Stade changed their entire unit during the course of the game but we kept our three on for the duration. I think the conditions helped us – our groundsman never gets the forecast wrong and we planned for this weather – but at the same time it's a tremendously satisfying outcome."
Bristol were in complete charge at the scrum, driving the Parisians into their in-goal area during the first half – David Hill kicked the first of his four penalties when the Stade forwards splintered under pressure – and took a strike against the head in the second, from which David Lemi, the slippery Samoan wing, might have set the try-count in motion but for some tidy defensive work from Nicolas Jeanjean. The set-piece momentum allowed the home back-rowers to establish some superiority of their own, and they were helped further when Sergio Parisse and Mauro Bergamasco pranged themselves in the same driving maul and headed for the dressing room.
With the forwards doing their pug-ugly stuff to such considerable effect, Shaun Perry was able to achieve something entirely beyond the sorry Skrela – that is to say, put the World Cup experience behind him. The scrum-half was dropped by England after the pool-stage defeat by the Springboks, during which he was given a thorough tutorial in the relevant arts by Fourie du Preez. Yesterday, he rediscovered the best of himself. He will never be the tidiest or most agile of half-backs, but his tackling game was nothing short of magnificent and he tested the Stade loose forwards with some low-slung scampers around the fringes.
Not unreasonably, Hill was delighted with his protégé's performance. "His attitude since returning from the World Cup has been excellent and as I believe he has something to offer this club in terms of leadership I had no hesitation in naming him captain once it was clear Matt Salter's injury would keep him out of this game." Perry lost nothing in comparison to his opposite number, Jérôme Fillol, who was by some distance the best of the Stade performers.
If it was the home coach's namesake, David, who chiselled out the decisive advantage with his goal-kicking, there was much to be said for the contribution of Brew, another New Zealander whose early-season form had been less than brilliant. He made life difficult for the ponderous likes of Liebenberg with a series of tackles that brought back memories of his performance for Otago against the 2005 British and Irish Lions, and with the reliable Rob Higgitt matching him hit for hit the Parisians rarely threatened to register a presence on the scoreboard.
Brew certainly deserved his try, the result of an exchange of passes with Higgitt after the initial interception. It will not be nearly as much fun at Stade Jean Bouin in mid-January, but that is another story, still to be told.
Bristol: Try Brew; Penalties Hill 4.
Bristol: L Arscott; T Arscott (J Taumalolo, 8), R Higgitt, N Brew, D Lemi; D Hill, S Perry (capt); A Clarke, M Regan, J Hobson, R Winters, S Hohneck, A Blowers, J El Abd (A To'oala, 59), D Ward-Smith.
Stade Français: N Jeanjean; J Arias, Mirco Bergamasco (G Messina, 69), B Liebenberg, J Saubade; D Skrela, J Fillol (T Bouhraqua, 80); F Montanella (D Attoub, 62), D Szarzewski (capt; M Blin 54), P Ledesma (D Weber; 46), B du Plooy, P Papé, Mauro Bergamasco (L Charlon, 40), R Martin, S Parisse (C Milton, 24).
Referee: P Fitzgibbon (Ireland).