Former superpower Biarritz still look to Yachvili ahead of Challenge Cup clash with Leinster

“When Dimitri is fit Biarritz always play well”


If the ripple effect is to be believed Connacht created the threat facing Leinster next Friday. The 22-14 defeat at the Sportsground last December prompted Biarritz Olympique president Serge Blanco to dismiss head coach Serge Milhas along with his Australian side-kick Jack Isaac.

Well, that miserable performance and the grenade Dimitri Yachvili hurled in the immediate aftermath. “We just played as the coaches asked us,” said Yachvili.Beautifully Machiavellian, the little general has dealt with a wayward coach before. Despite the calamitous reign of Marc Lièvremont and to and including the 2011 world cup, Yachvili was a similar guiding light all the way to the final. Nothing will ever be more daunting than that.

“When Dimitri is fit Biarritz always play well,” said French journalist Arnaud David. “He showed glimpses against Perpignan of returning to the old Yachvili, but he always dictates the tempo. Be it fast or slow, everyone must follow him.”

Biarritz ended last season’s calamitous campaign by winning the Challenge Cup when beating Toulon at The Stoop, Yachvili’s seven penalties outgunning Jonny Wilkinson. Along with Imanol Harinordoquy, he has become the synonymous with Biarritz rugby and so much more besides.

Surfers, enticed to the Atlantic swell that ensures this little gem nestled in the Bay of Biscay produces some of the best beach breaks in the world, know Yachvili’s campsite, within spitting distance of the sand, more than his grip of a game of rugby. Biarritz paid a heavy toll for his instrumental role in France’s meandering march through New Zealand in 2011. He returned to a club rooted to the bottom of the Top 14.

An 85 per cent place-kicking return guided them to safety and found the last seat at Europe’s top table. But Galway was the final straw; the coaching ticket had clearly lost the dressingroom. When Yachvili’s cabal awoke – Harinordoquy, Benoit August and Damien Traille – Milhas had no hope of surviving Blanco’s ire.

Great players on the downslope of almost great careers, they remain hugely influential. It’s a sure sign of an ailing club. Blanco’s dream of the Basque standard-bearers going one better than their 2006 and ’10 Heineken Cup final appearances hasn’t died but those moments are looking increasingly like remaining the high-water marks in the club’s history.

Biarritz are no longer the French superpower that required a flawless place-kicking display from Ronan O’Gara in the 2006 European final. They retained the Bouclier de Brennus that season but have been in decline since, mainly due to the financial clout of Toulon, Clermont Auvergne, Bayonne, Montpellier and Toulouse.

New head coach
A new head coach Didier Faugeron arrived and stemmed the bleeding in January without inspiring a consistent run of victories. There is simply no way through the bottleneck at the top of the Top 14 nowadays. Certainly not without deep pockets. “They are mid-table now in terms of money,” David explained. “There is nothing coming in so they will be struggling in the future.”

The other clubs have multi-millionaire benefactors to entice the world’s best players. Take local rivals Bayonne (Mike Philips and Joe Rokocoko) who are bank-rolled by Alain Afflelou, owner of the French version of Specsavers.

Biarritz are pretty much reliant on Blanco’s corporate pull. One old companion is Serge Kampf, who founded the global software company Catgemini.

Until last year Kampf was the majority shareholder in Biarritz and Grenoble but the latter’s return to the Top 14 meant Kampf couldn’t have an interest in both. He gave his shares away, while remaining the main sponsor of both. When Biarritz has struggled for cash he helps them out but he is 79 this year. Their annual debt fluctuates between €1 and €2 million. Qualification to the Heineken Cup guarantees about €500,000 to ease the pinch.

All or nothing
This is bad news for Leinster as it makes next Friday’s meeting at the RDS an all or nothing affair for Biarritz. Perpignan saw to that last week with James Hook making a late charge for the Lions squad with 23 points as the Catalans’ 33-28 victory spoiled any chance of Biarritz reaching the Top 14 play-offs.

Their only route back into the Heineken Cup is by winning the Amlin. Like last season. So, two wins in Dublin.

They have forgot about signing the best Southern Hemisphere guns for hire and invested in their youth academy. The richer clubs welcomed this. Outhalf/centre Jean-Pascal Barraque is off to Toulouse this summer, Backrow Wenceslas Lauret is joining Jonathan Sexton at Racing Metro 92 while prop Yvan Watremez already switched to Montpellier.

Like Leinster against Zebre, they are fielding a largely second-string side in Bordeaux today. They will play pretty, flowing rugby, much like their destruction of Gloucester in the quarter-final. Next Friday’s approach will be vastly different. Something similar to what Grenoble forwards coach Bernard Jackman witnessed three weeks ago. “Against Gloucester they broke out, played a more high-tempo game than what we see of them in the Top 14,” said Jackman. “They usually play a slow, controlled kick chase game.

“They play a lot of rugby in the opposition half. They have a decent scrum and very good maul. Once they get that motoring they generally win penalties. Their tries tend to come later. We stayed with them for 72 minutes when our sub outhalf panicked and cross-field kicked from his own line.”

It finished 33-16.

“Leinster won’t be used to playing a team like this,” Jackman continued. “There is certainly no scrumhalf in the Rabo like Yachvili or a pack that can do what Biarritz can do.”

Jackman remains confident, however, his old team will have enough to repel a desperate French assault. “I think Leinster will beat them but they’re only chance is to play a forward-orientated game. Use Yachvili, use their big men around the corner, create mini-mauls off rucks. They are decent. You always go back to Yachvili, Harinordoquy and Traille but there are others. Raphael Lakafia is one of the most consistent ball carriers in France. Eric Lund is big and strong while Ngwenya has become a better player and Benoit Bay is in great form.”

David agrees: “They will try to play a pressure game in Dublin. They have pace. On turnovers they will look for Ngwenya, Teddy Thomas and Marcelo Bosch.”

The threat is clear.