Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Heineken Cup: Biarritz facing win or bust in Belfast

Magnus Lund will be a key player for Biarritz at Ravenhill tomorrow.

As a statement it was loud and clear for all who wished to take notice and the impact reverberated far beyond the south-west corner of France.

You couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor Agen, who travelled to the Parc des Sports Aguilera last Saturday and didn't really know what had hit them as they were swamp- ed in a 65-22 annihilation that saw them concede a whopping 10 tries.

Afterwards, the Agen dressing-room must have been a fairly desolate place as they contemplated exiting Biarritz and crawling back home.

Last weekend had certainly been impressive for Biarritz but had also been typical of them as the Basque club had stumbled on a big performance to hit fourth place in the Top 14 table; and yet they hit the heights a week earlier than they might have liked.

Not that the slaughter of Agen was insignificant; after all it had halted a run of two consecutive defeats in the French Championship — both of which had been away from home — and had also avenged the reversal they had experienced at Agen earlier in the season.

It’s just that tomorrow afternoon’s date at Ravenhill is a rather pressing affair for a club that values the currency of having a presence in Europe and one that has reached two finals — but agonisingly tasted defeat on both occasions in 2006 and last year — in addition to exiting at the semi-final stages twice and making way from the last eight three times.

In essence, tomorrow brings a Pool Four showdown which could ultimately decide Biarritz’s Heineken Cup aspirations.

It wasn't meant to have worked out this way but Biarritz now must win tomorrow to make the knockout stages. Failing that, they must secure a losing bonus point, and preferably deny Ulster a winning one to take their European survival into next weekend’s final round of pool games when they then must aim to take maximum points from hosting the likely to be less-than-motivated Bath.

That last season's finalists have found themselves in this tricky situation is down to how events panned out on December 11 at the Stadio Luigi Zaffanella over in Italy.

On that afternoon one of the most bizarre results to ever unfold in the Heineken Cup’s considerable history was played out as Biarritz somehow allowed newcomers Aironi to snatch the unlikeliest of wins when the Italians managed to finish 28-27 ahead. Afterwards, the Biarritz dressing room was a scene of extensive wreckage and one where club president Serge Blanco didn’t hold back when it came to voicing his opinion on what had transpired.

“Serge said his piece and had some tough words for us,” Biarritz and England international flanker Magnus Lund recalled.

“We thought we were going to win and we just let the foot off the gas. It was a quiet changing room.”

Even though Biarritz still came away from northern Italy with two losing bonus points, and then with vengeance on their minds extracted the maximum five the following week when the sides met back in France, the damage had been done to what had, after Biarritz had earlier swatted Ulster aside 35-15 in the second round of games, appeared to be shaping up as a fairly leisurely stroll to qualification. It says much about Biarritz's mentality that they lost their way in Italy; they readily combine big results with frighteningly inconsistent performances which more than suggests a tendency to be mentally fragile, and this from a side with star players such as Imanol Harinordoquy, Dimitri Yachvili and other notables in Magnus Lund, Damien Traille, Benoit August, Taku Ngwenya and Jerome Thion. Go figure.

Take 2006 for example: a horrendous loss of concentration in defending the blindside of a scrum allowed Munster to finally lift the Heineken Cup at the Millennium Stadium and then just to rub salt further into Biarritz’s wounds the big screen splashed up the huge crowd that had gathered to cheer Munster home in Limerick.

Basically they froze on the day but it still rankles with the club that the image beamed into the ground gave the Irish province an unfair psychological shot in the arm.

Anyway, from the wreckage of that day in Cardiff, Biarritz turned round and then beat Toulouse the following week to secure the French Championship for the second consecutive season which, incidentally, was the last time they lifted the coveted Bouclier de Brennus.

They readily admit that there is a seemingly in-built inconsistency to their game but that still doesn’t mean the squad know how to deal with it as their primary kicker Yachvili concedes: “Don’t ask me why, but it is true. We can play at a very high level one week and badly the next.”

Yes, that defeat to Aironi has a nasty look about it as being one of those pivotal, season-wrecking moments.

Still, Biarritz have come to Belfast before and made off with the spoils — back in 2006 the side that won 24-8 as they made their way to the final in Cardiff |included Yachvili, Harinordoquy, August and Thion.

Those players are at least familiar with what it takes and tomorrow they know it’s time to make another statement.

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