Heineken Cup: Last eight beckons if Ulster are ruthless
They’re probably the last real hurdle standing between Ulster and a place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. And they’re in Belfast today for the winner-takes-all tie which will almost certainly decide the outcome of the pool.
The mathematics are clear. If Ulster win and deny Biarritz a losing bonus point, then victory by four tries in Italy against little Aironi next weekend will put Ulster through. Biarritz could do nothing about it.
So the message is clear for Brian McLaughlin’s team. They have to beat the Basque club today and shut them out defensively. But how do Ulster go about that?
I’ve watched several of Biarritz’s matches in the French Top 14 this season and there are some useful insights into the way they play, their strengths and weaknesses.
There are two principal strengths to this team. One is the ability of their forwards to get on top and dominate a game. They have potentially a big, powerful pack that won’t take a step back. The Basques pride themselves on their strong forwards and they use them to try and crush opponents.
The second strength, although it may sound a bit curious, is their unpredictability. They blow hot and cold the whole time but if they get in the mood and things go for them, they’re capable of putting anyone away.
This season, like most years, they’ve slipped up against minnows — like their ridiculous 28-27 defeat in Italy against Aironi — and beaten some of the best in the French Championship. That’s typical Biarritz.
Firstly, their gross inconsistency. Not even they seem to know when they’re going to hit form. Players’ individual performance levels soar and drop like a swallow, often for no apparent reason.
They can look world class players one day, clowns the next.
Another weakness is their tendency to switch off. They’ll drop simple passes, turn over balls they have already won . . . all because, it would seem, they lose concentration. It’s been a trait of the club for years.
You never know what you’re going to get from them, but that makes life tough for their opponents.
They’re likely to be strong and competitive. Technically, most Biarritz front row men are very good and they’re usually powerful. They choose work horses at lock, such as Jerome Thion and the abrasive Erik Lund. And their back row will be tough and competitive with the likes of Imanol Harinordoquy and Magnus Lund. But they’ll miss the injured international Wenceslas Lauret on the flank.
Harinordoquy is a favourite target, likewise Thion. These are the two principal sources of possession, although South African Trevor Hall is a strong contributor too, when fit. And they like to launch their feared rolling mauls off line-outs anywhere within realistic sight of the opposition line.
No. 1 is scrum half Dimitri Yachvili. If Ulster get to him and upset his game, they’ll be making major progress for when Yachvili plays well, Biarritz invariably do. He’s quick, intelligent and a talented tactician. Watch for his quick taps from free kicks. And of course he’s a superb goal kicker when in form.
Others to watch include the combative giant Harinordoquy. He represents the spirit of this team. Behind the scrum, watch out for the siege gun tactical kicking of Damien Traille. And then there’s the high octane speed out wide of Ian Balshaw and flying USA wing Takudzwa Ngwenya. Both have pace to burn and are clever, dangerous opponents in broken play. So Ulster’s tactical kicking will have to be smart.
AREAS TO EXPLOIT
They can be dopey, lazy at times. They’ll suddenly cough up ball when you least expect it. Ulster must take advantage big time whenever that happens. So, high concentration levels against them are essential.
Their first-up tackling was often uncertain at Toulon recently. But it’s their own concentration levels which opponents can target. So often, Biarritz concede a penalty or a try immediately after they have scored themselves. They seem to switch off. And they’ve been ordinary at restarts in some recent matches.
Ulster must look to get in their faces, establish pressure and maintain it for as long as possible. Biarritz won’t enjoy that. If McLaughlin’s men can do that, they could sow the seeds of victory. But the rest of their game will have to be on the mark.
Because above all, Biarritz are highly unpredictable. Which makes them very dangerous.